At first glance, photographer Julie Blackmon‘s portraits of family and domestic life seem playfully chaotic and humorous. A child sits unattended lost in a world of bubble tape which he dangles carelessly into his mouth amidst a dining room table set for dinner; a banana slips from the grasp of a little girl; umbrellas swirl above a pool on a cloudless day. Upon closer observation however, it gradually becomes apparent that something is amiss.
The work possesses an eerie, raw elegance, despite the deceptively meticulous attention to composition. All of these scenes depict a life of perceived luxury, and suggests that it comes at a price. These children seem to have been provided with everything, but are they happy? As Blackmon notes in her artist’s statement on the work, our culture is at once
child centered and self-obsessed…the struggle between living in the moment versus escaping to another reality is intense since these two opposites strive to dominate. Caught in the swirl of soccer practices, play dates, work, and trying to find our way in our “make-over” culture, we must still create the space to find ourselves. The expectations of family life have never been more at odds with each other.
There is a subtle tension, crafted with the placement of every detail and object within the frame; it is chaotic, yet nothing is extraneous. In most of the photographs, there is a parental absence, or hint at such, and this is where Blackmon is most successful in her appropriation and application of popular culture as surrogates for adult presence. These objects are also specifically related to the realms of child rearing and ideas of traditional feminine indulgence and escape, i.e. nail polish, a Sephora shopping bag, talking on the phone. In Boar Head, a popular self help book obscures the face of the adult figure; a computer stands in for a mother as she quietly disappears up stairs, her heels and pencil skirt the only visible indicator of her presence in the aptly titled PC, while the little girl is left looking bored, and abandoned. It is in these glimpses of the desperate attempt at self indulgence that Blackmon engages ideas of personal space and the necessity for it, especially within the context of being a mother. Juxtaposed with the childrens’ gazes and expressions, whether blank or upset, it implores a dialogue on childhood, the role and absence of authority, and most importantly the precarious nature of raising a child in today’s hyperactive, over-stimulated world.
In what is perhaps the most disturbing representation of the dichotomy of parental responsibility and anxiety is in Vintage Wallpaper in which a infant stands in a defiant scream in his crib, while butterflies float above his head. Though clearly in distress, his cries go unheard in disconcerting silence. Blackmon creates a visual bewilderment: everything looks so opulent, taken care of and lovely, yet it is anything but. Merging the worlds of fantasy and reality, Blackmon invokes the idea that life can indeed be surreal. It is in this surreality however that she finds grace. It is both a self admission of struggle and an embrace of the daily juggling act we all perform.
Selected works from Domestic Vacations are currently on view at local San Francisco non-profit gallery SFCamerawork. The show runs from April 2-May 23, 2009. The gallery is also open late the first thursday of every month. So get your art on, and check it out!
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