Now Appearing: The Virtual Universe of George Blaha
When I first encountered George Blaha’s recent work a few years ago, I was fooled. Images of sculptures, paintings and reliefs were presented in a gallery-like environment with clean, white walls. I was impressed with their scale, ambition and degree of sheer visual invention. The dimensions and materials used were listed in detail. But wait, how could he afford to make sculptures from precious metals and how many assistants does he have in order to be able to fabricate some of the more complex works? I was tricked. The work exists only in the cyber-world, created on Carrara, a 3D imaging program used primarily by animators.
These virtual objects exist as enormous files on the hard-drive of the artist’s computer and smaller versions are freely shared on Facebook. The pieces can also be exhibited as large, high-definition prints, which reveal an opulence of detail not visible in their Internet version. These avatars of art objects are extremely convincing in the way that they simulate the color and texture of the various materials that are said to comprise them. We call these works “virtual,” but I believe that Blaha would argue that they truly exist and are no less “real” than actual paintings and sculptures. Insubstantial images proliferate in our world like an army of ghosts: images on movie screens, televisions and computer monitors. We take them for granted and accept that they are not “real” though the dancing electrons and light waves are no less (or more) real than the atoms in a bar of solid lead.
There are other tricks and mysteries at play in his work. Each piece is based on an idea or ideas and part of the pleasure of viewing them is figuring out the puzzles. He says that he considers his pieces to be like hieroglyphics, multi-faceted images that engage the viewer’s imagination in deciphering and reconstructing them. He wants to “restore the magic of the picture,” in a contemporary world where we are inundated with an endless barrage of meaningless images.
Both form and content in Blaha’s work reflect his broad range of interests and research. These include: world religions (Tibetan Buddhism in particular), mathematics, graphs, maps, diagrams, typography, architecture and high and low manifestations of visual culture in general.
Surprisingly, he does not draw his inspiration from other digital artists. Instead, he cites sculptors and mixed media artists as kindred spirits: Richard Artschwager, Tom Friedman, Richard Tuttle and Charles Ray among others. What these artists have in common is their use of unusual, often humble materials and that they often challenge the viewer’s habits of perception and preconceived notions of what is real. This is an over-simplification, but it would take another long essay to explore the similarities and differences between these artists and how they connect to his work.
Let me give a few examples of Blaha’s work. The material for Net Prophet is listed as “orange plastic net fencing.” This is a cheap material that I associate with construction sites, unorthodox for traditional art making. The form of this piece suggests a floating figure: a ghost or perhaps the image of Christ ascending into heaven. The holes in the netting show that it is empty and appears as if it is draped over an invisible person or object. This contains at least two paradoxes: it is both solid and empty and is composed of a material that is usually considered ugly that, in this context is quite beautiful, like some richly-patterned fabric. The punning title suggests a sacred subject, rendered in a surprisingly humble material. It seems odd to speak of material, since the real material of the piece is bytes of stored information rendered visible by electricity. The artist, in speaking of this work quotes the Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”
In contrast, another piece is listed as “Rare, late twentieth century gem-studded, silver art reliquary,” a description that also functions as its title. This virtual object appears to be a box constructed from precious materials. On further inspection it reveals itself to be based on the floor plan of an art gallery. The “gems” represent the precious art objects displayed within. The floor plan is itself “golden” in that it is divided up based on the proportions of the “golden section” and a triangle with sides derived from the square roots of two, three and five.
The precious and the cheap are interchangeable in Blaha’s virtual world. In Chrysler Building; Downsized, a model of the Chrysler Building, considered to be a masterpiece of architecture in the Art Deco style, is digitally squashed and has a surface applied to it that makes it appear to be constructed from old cardboard boxes. Yet somehow, a trace of elegance remains in this “debased” re-imagining.
A similar odd substitution of materials happens in the piece titled, Reconstructed early twentieth century Russian folk wickerwork. This twisting architectural composition is inspired by Russian Constructivism, in particular, Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International, a structure that, had it been erected, would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower. This icon of modernism echoes Blaha’s work in that it existed only as a model; it was never built. The use of wicker refers to the taste for folk art and crafts, the work of common people rather than elite artists in early twentieth century Soviet Russia. The artist’s spiraling basketwork “sculpture” illustrates connections between weaving and steel-beam construction and suggests to me a hybrid of Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel, a vast and mysterious edifice made of natural materials.
The sacred and profane are interchangeable in Blaha’s work, as are the concepts of “high” and “low” art. A2Z is a structure based on the Kabbalist’s Tree of Life that also resembles molecular models and “bead and bar” jewelry worn by people with body piercings. The top of the virtual construction, described by the artist as “ceramic,” looks like a swollen nipple stretched by multiple piercings. If you zoom in on this area, what at first seem to be vague markings turn out to resemble the face of Jesus from the Shroud of Turin and writing, some legible, some not. The readable part is a quote from St. Francis of Assisi: “What you are looking for is what is looking.” The sadomasochistic aspect of the piece calls to mind the bloody cruelty present in some Christian art: crucifixions and the grisly martyrdom of saints. In the context of the piece the quote can refer to voyeurism, or a call to be present in the moment, a surprisingly Zen Buddhist thought when attributed to a Catholic Saint.
Some of Blaha’s images represent strange translations, for example: Leroy esta muerto, VIVA LEROY, (Leroy is dead, Leroy lives.) You can also read this as, “The king is dead, long live the king” in a translation that mixes archaic French (Le Roy) and Spanish, so that it references both “the king” and some ordinary guy named Leroy. High or low, everyone dies.
To create the piece he has imported his own signature in script into Carrara and spun it 360 degrees around a horizontal axis. The resulting image resembles the king of a chess set. The fact that it is lying on its side indicates checkmate; the king is dead (from the Persian, shah mat). It casts a soft shadow on a featureless void, above which it appears to float. This is a meditation on death, the transition of our flesh and living energy into some other form, physical or spiritual depending on one’s beliefs.
There are several of these “translations,” for example: Recycled cymbals arranged in the form of the sound wave for Phat! The title partially explains the piece: a graphic image of the sound wave pattern created when the word “phat” is spoken, is spun around an axis, creating a form that resembles a stack of cymbals of varying sizes.
The word “phat” in hip-hop lingo from the late nineteen-eighties means “cool” and may be an acronym for “pretty hot and tempting” according to The Urban Dictionary. It may also be derived from certain “fat” musical beats that have presence. “Phat” is also a syllable in the Tibetan language that means, “crack” as in a crack of thunder. In Tibetan Buddhism it is associated with the Bodhisattva Vajrapani, holder of the thunderbolt (vajra), who is traditionally depicted dancing wildly, surrounded by a halo of flames. Phat is the crack of Vajrapani’s thunderbolt cutting through the walls of ego and delusion.
This is more than a pun because it sets off a rich chain of associations: the crack of thunder with the crash of cymbals, a dancing deity and the whirl of break-dancers, beats that have “presence” and the spiritual process of cutting through delusion to achieve “presence in the moment.” “Cymbal” is also a homonym of “symbol,” another interesting bit of wordplay.
Sometimes the translated information is hermetic, inaccessible to the viewer unless the artist chooses to explain it. Ship of State, for example, was generated from a Sanskrit syllable used as a seal on a sacred Buddhist text. Even if you can read Sanskrit, and I cannot, it would be impossible to “read” it in the three dimensional image generated from it. The billowing form suggests both a flag rippling in the wind and a sailing ship, so the pattern of the American flag superimposed on this ship-like form makes the elegant visual joke that comprises what is visible in this work. Yet it still contains that additional hidden element. It’s like the secret knowledge concealed within the design structure of the pyramids.
The hermetic content in Blaha’s work reminds me of certain African sculptures; works that contain hidden sacred materials that were part of the ritual of their making, that are not visible to the viewer. The presence of these concealed elements gives the object power that is believed in and felt by its maker. I think that he hopes that these built-in elements, though unknown to the viewer, will be perceived indirectly: they will be felt because of the effect of their presence on the artist in the act of making the work. In other words, knowing that that these elements are present aids the artist in giving life and energy to his work, and he has faith that this energy will be manifest to the viewer though its source is invisible.
Having had the hidden content of certain works explained to me makes me wonder if all of Blaha’s work might contain hidden meanings. Even if I feel that I have divined all of the complexities of a piece, there may still be countless other nuances that I will never decipher. This is another aspect of his project of “restoring (or re-evoking) the mystery.”
Getting back to the work… the title CORPORATE LOGOS.psd is a pun because it refers to “logos,” icons that represent corporations or brands, and also Logos: Greek for “word” and “reason.” In Christian theology Logos refers to the word of God and also the principle of divine reason and creative order. “Corporate” refers to corporations but perhaps also to its Latin root corpus, meaning body. The piece is an assembly of various symbols and punctuation marks that appear to be cast in metal (“polished brass” is what the artist tells us). These seem to be mounted on a wall, like a logo in the lobby of a company’s headquarters. The marks and symbols are put together in such a way to create an emoticon representing the Buddha in meditation. The stomach of the Buddha is made by an “@” surrounded by brackets. Blaha uses the “@” to signify “presence in the moment, where you are ‘at.’” The brackets represent the viewer, his or her frame of reference.
Shiva is a view from the back of what seems to be a statue of a bald, naked person of indeterminate sex. The figure is covered from head to toe with dark moles, as though he or she were suffering from an aggressive skin cancer. On closer examination, the malignant moles are actually negative images of galaxies, a photograph of an expanse of space superimposed on the human form. The Hindu god Shiva is both the destroyer and the lord of the cosmic dance. Shiva is also a name for the seven days of mourning for the dead in Judaism. This strange visual pun leads us from thoughts of death to a meditation on the vastness of the universe and our tiny place and span of life within it.
Laughing at a joke and having an aesthetic experience have in common the element of surprise. The punch line is not what we expected and an artwork or piece of music is particularly satisfying if it shows us something new, takes us to a different place, revealing the harmony of elements that we would expect to clash.
There is humor in much of Blaha’s work: funny or punning titles, visual puns and sometimes-outrageous choices of materials in unexpected combinations. Having them exist in cyberspace liberates the artist from the limitations, the difficulties and expense of “actual” fabrication. A flying saucer can be covered with dinosaur skin or a giant archway constructed of silly putty.
Humor also seduces the viewer into contemplating religious notions that he or she might resist as preachy if presented in a serious or deadpan manner. Humor can also have rough edges. The court jester is the one person who can confront the king with uncomfortable truths. Blaha wants to unmask the world, revealing to us the fact that appearances are illusory. Life is like a dream.
If there are jokes in Blaha’s work, they are often cosmic jokes that can make you laugh and then gasp the next moment. A cosmic joke has the same relationship to comedy that the concept of the sublime has to beauty: an appreciation of an object or phenomenon that combines both wonder and apprehension.
I think that the real cosmic joke is that, on this planet, this tiny mote in a seemingly endless expanse of space and time, we regard any of this seriously or that we take any given moment of our brief existence lightly.
November 17, 2012
An essay about the digital work of George Blaha