Remembering Jeremy Blake

Editor's note: This is a personal essay about the late artist Jeremy Blake, who recently took his own life. The circumstances of his death are omitted in this essay, but can be read about here. His art is referred to in the present tense because it lives on; for more information on his art, visit his gallery or see his final show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC this fall. 

The first time I met Jeremy Blake was in 2005, and I came armed with a long list of wordy questions, a good dose of background reading, a brand new digital audio recorder and what I hoped would seem like a pretty cool T-shirt. His studio was close to where I lived in LA, and I expected a roomy, high-tech workspace, with big white walls and lots of gleaming equipment. I knew perfectly well that digital artists produce huge, dazzling projects very happily on 15“ laptops. But Blake's reputation suggested something grand, and I expected a space to accommodate what must be a big attitude, something that would align with his reception in the art world, which was at once celebratory, dismissive and breathlessly intrigued by his good looks.

Jeremy Blake in his studio (photo: Autumn de Wilde).

At that point, Blake had been making self-described ”moving paintings“ for almost a decade, with exposure in multiple Whitney Biennial shows, as well as participation in the 2001 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit ”010101: Art in Technological Times,“ along with numerous gallery shows in the U.S. and abroad. He had also collaborated with many other artists, including filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (Blake worked on the abstract hallucinations in Punch-Drunk Love) and Beck (for whom Blake helped create the Sea Change album art). His ”paintings“ are actually DVD projections based loosely on themes, ideas or narratives, and their allure is in their luminous color, and the way the images drift in and out of focus like a slowly turning flipbook of jumbled dreams and memories. Although many saw Blake's work as a continuation of aspects of the history of abstract film and video, Blake, who studied at the California Institute of the Arts between 1989 and 1993, always insisted that his work emerged from the world of painting. ”I like taking what's good about painting and what's good about film, and knocking against both of them, playing pranks on them,“ he would say later. ”In a way, I guess I'm trying to free up the terms of both mediums by crossing them. I'm kind of contrarian.“ While he references painting and film, Blake's work also crossed into design, music and even the multimedia essay form, and in its challenge to these boundaries, affected how we understand these forms.

Artwork from Beck's 2002 album Sea Change (art: Jeremy Blake, photo: Autumn de Wilde).

Finally locating Blake's studio in an alley, I entered to find a tiny, square room lined with paintings and littered with stuff. Blake sat hunched over two monitors under a low-slung loft space, so I had to duck down to shake his hand. He offered a chair, and before I could ask a question, he launched into an almost stream-of-consciousness explanation of his latest project, weaving a story that traced his fascination with his subject, and the personal trajectory of thinking and experiences that fed the loose narrative thread, the layered visuals and complex sound design. He was finishing a project about Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune and creator of the eerie Winchester House, a roadside attraction and basis for Blake's 2005 Winchester Trilogy. Along the way, he touched on everything from quilting to the libidinous angst of Victorian architecture; from the digital uncanny to psychedelia; from the aesthetic appeal of painterly abstraction to the ideological transition marking three generations of American art.

Winchester Trilogy (from top, l-to-r): Stills 1-2 from ”Winchester,“ 2002, DVD with sound, 18-min. continuous loop; stills 3-4 from ”1906,“ 2003, DVD with sound, 21-min. continuous; stills 5-6 from ”Century 21,“ 2004, DVD with sound, 12-min. continuous loop (courtesy SFMOMA).

I finally asked one question, about the spatial architecture of his work, a question that had no interest at all for Blake. He didn't try to cover his disinterest, but moved seamlessly on, to the difficulty so many writers and curators had in placing his work. ”I'm just trying to think about how much flexibility you need as an artist and how much you can get out of the medium,“ he said, adding, ”There is a lot of ambivalence about new media stuff because a lot of what is made is not good traditionally, in terms of art, and often artists will make the mistake of leaning on a certain technology as a crutch. I don't do that. With my stuff, like this project, there is my background in painting, which is very firm, and there is also Super 8 film, which is very nostalgic, and a lot of hand-drawing and a lot of other elements that are pretty much low tech, totally low tech, actually, and anyone technology-minded would say, 'You really have your head up your ass the way you work!' But what comes out is, I think, a cool mix of the new and the old.“

Blake's work mixes not only new and old, but amateur and professional as well. Blake himself was a mix, an artist and an entertainer, a filmmaker and a designer, and a man somewhat caught between the dichotomies of New York and Los Angeles. That said, Blake was well aware of his own hybridity and understood the challenges it posed, often quite seriously, to his career and the world's view of him. He took it all very seriously. Or not. ”As a kid I was a real wise-ass,“ he confessed during that first interview. ”I think a lot of my approach as I've gotten older and more in-depth, well, my approach is still kind of humorous.“

Blake was indeed funny, and smart, gentle, and driven. LA feels less luminous without him.