Douglas Blau is a curator, writer, artist, and obsessive scavenger of images. His exhibition Fictions: A Selection of Pictures from the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries from 1987 presented a wide swath of images from contemporary painters alongside historical artworks in addition to film stills and photographs that all express a visionary or romantic sensibility. The highs and lows sitting in relation to each other were reduced to dark, bluish-hued monochromes. It was a curatorial feat to create narratives and fictions through the multitude of possible picture connections. For Blau, art's object is to make the relationship between reading and looking, depiction and meaning - accessible and engulfing. A new catalog of his latest work from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Pennsylvania breaks Blau's last ten years of self-induced silence in the art world.
The exhibition and catalog brings 16 works from 2008 and one larger work (188 frames) from 1993-95. Each work is a grid of images collaged and grouped under titles which might hint at the narrative being explored. The work Playtime (2008) offers on first glance a game of hide and seek between two girls that slowly reveals itself to be a larger narrative set in the Gilded Age. The 'stage' is a series of images that toss us between ornately decorated drawing rooms, vast staircases, libraries and theaters. You can enter the grid at any point, become the film's editor and piece together your own inspired narrative. The departure in strategy for Blau's recent work is these groupings hold to one particular moment in history instead of his usual sweep across time.
In many of the works, Blau finds multiple copies of each image reproduced through various types of techniques from letterpress to four-color, etchings to photographs so each grid is in its own way an homage to the history of printed matter. It holds to what the digital age is discarding.
The design of this volume is worth noting as printed catalogs are always an important aspect of Blau's work (one might assume due to its long lasting accessibility as opposed to the exhibitions). Each framed grouping was photographed as installed in the ICA and interspersed are detailed close-ups of one section of each piece. These further crop and dissect the individual pictures, zooming in and out the way one might navigate the exhibition. Mostly these detail spreads are designed to break the repetition of just seeing grid after grid since the individual pictures can appear too small to fully investigate. Because of this, one gets the basic gist of each piece but to become fully engulfed is simply not possible. His catalog from the Fictions exhibitions I remember suffered from this same dilemma, we are held back from falling into these worlds as he does in meticulously assembling this work.
As a side note, I highly recommend reading Blau wherever possible. Here is a link to the piece “Solid Air” he wrote inspired by the work of Vija Clemins that appeared in her ICA/Whitney Museum catalog from 1992.