Robert Blanchon

Betty Rymer Gallery, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Robert Blanchon, who died in 1999 at thirty-three from AIDS-related illnesses, was the ultimate accelerated man. Whether sending out press releases and personalized invitations for what turned out to be a fictitious panel discussion on Conceptual art in 1989 (he got me on that one, and the embarrassment/exhilaration of being so artfully and aptly tricked was unforgettable), or having fourteen street and shopping-mall caricaturists do on-the-spot portraits of him and showing the results at the Drawing Center in New York in 1991, Blanchon was driven by a restless, high-keyed humor and a kind of incredulity over how many ways there are to foster artistic engagement and how few of them are pursued in the contemporary art world. (He would have approved of a sentence as long and hybridized as that one.) His flitting from project to project and medium to medium—as well as city to city; in his brief career he lived and worked in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles—was not evidence of aesthetic inconstancy but a record of his peripatetic, febrile intellect.

This exhibition, “Minimal Provocations: The Art and Influence of Robert Blanchon,” acknowledged his brief tenure as a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and included work by sixteen of his former students alongside his own. These largely confirmed what one might have guessed, that Blanchon didn’t teach style as much as attitude, or better yet, made attitude into style, and what his students mostly share is their independence.

Blanchon made objects too, or at least had objects crafted for him. Monocle, 1998, is half an eyeglass frame, a single lens with the arms extending back on either side, as if the head of its wearer were only a couple of inches wide. Witty, oddly surrealistic, totally unexpected, yet somehow completely logical, this work was displayed on a small glass slab extending from the wall, giving it a clinical and fetishized air and setting up curious effects of light and shadow. Untitled: Death Valley Self-Portrait, 1995, comprises two photographs. In one, Blanchon is shown full-length, standing nude in Death Valley, eyes dosed, facing the camera; the second is an image of what seems to be a nearby site, an empty highway shot through a bug-spattered windshield. Place and self, the body and nature, heat and death, the erotic and the mundane, presence and absence all glide in and around these suggestive scenes, benign assertions of personhood and allusions to the ephemerality of the self.

Toward the back of the show was a piece by Blanchon that I had never seen. Untitled, 1998, is an uncut vertical roll of C-prints that shows a few sites of outdoor steps, stairs built directly into the ground, each photographed many times. These twenty-four linked photographs make a kind of interrupted column of stairs, with only earth and no sky or heaven to separate them. It suggests a Sisyphean climb, a perpetual ascent to some kind of end we cannot perceive and never will discover. Blanchon has it begin at our feet and terminate a bit up above, somewhat over our heads.

James Yood