See John Blee’s show in Dumbo!
I was fortunate enough to get a preview last week. I thought I knew my friend’s work (here’s a link to his site if you don’t), but was blown away by the sheer…diversity of the canvases that will line the loft’s walls through March. The works represent a number of distinct phases (line brush, still lives, and recent work, among others) that all leave very different emotional and visual impressions – and showcase the sheer breadth, and depth, of John’s abilities. The survey includes 26 works – and it’s the first time John, who lived in Dumbo in the 80s, is showing in his old neighborhood.
The setting is a stunning, modern loft in Dumbo with a head-on view of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan. When you get there, what you get is essentially a private tour of John’s work by one of his oldest friends, Norma Jean Markus – the loft’s charming owner and the woman behind Norma Jean Markus, Inc.
It’s a rare opportunity to see the work of this MoMA- and LA County Museum-represented artist in an intimate setting.
See it if you can! And if you happen to be in the DC area between March 18 and March 28, you can also catch John’s work in the Ralls Collection’s show, 20 Years, 20 Artists at The Ralls Collection.
Reception: March 12, 4 – 7 pm and March 13, 1 – 4 pm.
Location: 70 Washington Street 12g, Brooklyn, New York or by appointment. Contact Norma Jean Markus at 917.446.7234.
More About John Blee
Here’s what art critic David Matlock wrote as a way of an introduction to John’s work:
Abstract painting dates from 1911 when Vasily Kandinsky made the leap into the wholly interior without reference to material objects. Henceforth, any reference to the outside world would come from the inside. Painters had always been concerned with interior life, but they got there by starting with the material world and painting inward. Kandinsky reversed this process and his daring (and difficult) task became the life’s work of numerous successors.
As the 100th anniversary of Kandinsky’s breakthrough approaches, it is fair to ask: what has been achieved? Are abstract paintings today repeating what has already been said—and with each repetition, fading in strength? Or do they have something new to say, both from a technical standpoint and in terms of meaning?
At the beginning, abstraction exploded. Kandinsky himself tried to consolidate a more controlled language and connoisseurs still argue about his degree of success. When the Abstract Expressionists adopted the language on a larger scale, canvases exploded again in shamanic frenzy. Success was hit or miss, all too dependent on possession.
John Blee’s first mature paintings, dating from the early 1970s, were also shamanic, painted on the floor, and dependent on force and a possessed dancing. In a career of 40 years, the man has achieved total control over paint and, more importantly, now owns his meditative inscape. He owns the land that earlier painters had to burst into by force. His paintings are deliberate acts of self-intoxication. (It is worth noting, that although he came of age in the 1960s, he has always disdained the use of recreational drugs.) The Hindu and Buddhist art he experienced as a child and adolescent in India were formative; as was the medieval sculpture in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora; and the work of Indian modernists in the National Museum. Blee responds to Asian art as an insider—someone who was shaped by the culture before he received his American inheritance.
The paintings on display are easy to enjoy but difficult to understand. From a technical standpoint, the rendering of space is unique. There is nothing arbitrary or “atmospheric” about the backgrounds—they are architectonic—that is, they create a definite space in which “painterly event” unfolds. It is easy to take pleasure in the paint—casual admirers often remark, “What a painterly painter! What a colorist!” without suspecting the hidden narrative. I strongly suspect the hieratic “Sphinx” (2009) is one of Blee’s dogs, posing nobly on the grass—the humorous title a reference to the difficulty of knowing what the animal is really thinking. Parrots (whom he loves) also appear, but the animals and landscape exist within the meditative land that is the abstract painter’s subject. These paintings are truthful because they begin from within and encompass the outside world in an ecstatic veil of paint. Earlier abstract painters discovered a new continent; John Blee is traveling inland and is providing a faithful record of what he finds.