Trippin' with Slick

Jeremy Blake must have a hell of a time decorating his apartment. His exhibition in the upstairs galleries at the Blaffer, "All Mod Cons," seems at first glance to have been created by two separate artists who are clearly at odds with each other. But one man's personal problems can be a plus for the world of art. These works, organized by Blaffer director Terrie Sultan as its offering to FotoFest, are guaranteed to wow viewers, even if they might leave the exhibition a bit dazed and confused.

Blake appears to want audiences in this condition; every facet of the show confounds and delights. One room holds "The Slick Rhoades Story," a series of framed drawings presenting the story of fictional bad boy Keith "Slick" Rhoades. Mischievous and possibly brain-damaged, this British architect destroys one of England's beloved castles to erect Berkshire Fangs, a home for contemporary vampires. He gets ejected from the country, only to wind up living in bliss in Los Angeles. His girlfriend, Clara Fogg, is a cutie in bunny ears. A glittery rushing stream accents a drawing of his cliffside manse, and other illustrations suggest that he must spend his days reading about EST, smoking cigarettes, popping pills and having a great time. Blake mentioned that Slick's original story ended badly; that Slick, pushed to the edge of the Western world after jousting with icons of modern civilization, died after reaching L.A. Dissatisfied with the Day of the Locust-style nihilism, Blake revised Slick's story with a happier ending. By doing so, he afforded himself one that's not so bad: Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, took notice and asked the artist to work with him on his next film.

But if masterfully rendered drawings and sly narrative with the sensibilities of a Steve Erickson novel don't excite you, keep moving. All Mod Cons, Disappearing Floor and No Mirrors, the long rectangular (think large-screen letterbox) digital C-prints in the adjacent gallery, seem to ooze saturated color and combine the slick surfaces of Richter and Ruscha paintings. They are fictional interiors: All Mod Cons could be a well-lit fashion runway -- magenta and deep-process orange at the rear of the stage, and the split image of the ghost of a Kenneth Noland flanking the scene. No Mirrors, possibly an interior of Rhoades's Berkshire Fangs (even hip, contemporary vampires shun their own reflections), has a slightly gothic feel. Each is at once an atmospheric stage set and a tribute to cinema and architecture, while feeling simultaneously photographic and painterly. If this seems paradoxical, it should: Blake trained as a painter and loves the medium, but finds the process limiting. He opts instead for art hovering among painting, photography and cinematography; his voracious appetite cannot be satisfied by traditional media.

Blake's urge to lead us through his world by whatever medium necessary explodes in the DVD installations. Bring a pillow: These are to be lingered over, absorbed. Each slowly evolves from brilliantly hued, moving abstract "paintings" (think Aaron Parazette, Laura Owens) to interior scenes reminiscent of the large framed pieces, to sci-fi-like panels that open to reveal the next universe. Dual film clips of burning castles highlight Berkshire Fangs. Chemical Sundown reveals a similar insertion: Ursula Andress ecstatically spins in slow motion while a flurry of downy feathers rains upon her. That's the consummate image for the abstracted fairy tale of life in post-postmodern Los Angeles -- you can do it all, have it all.

Assorted video artists and painters may dismiss the work on grounds of technical and aesthetic purity, but if viewed properly, Blake's videos force their audiences to contemplate painting in ways that many of us simply do not. With the exception of painters and die-hard enthusiasts, few people are willing to stand in front of a canvas long enough to allow its properties to transport them to a place where only something genuinely beautiful can take them. Blake's slow-moving images give viewers a hallucinatory tour through his education and imagination; both are vast, and it's well worth the trip.

It is quite likely, however, that those exiting the video projections, properly stoned, will have forgotten all about Slick Rhoades, Clara Fogg and their smog-kissed lives. The story isn't required for enjoyment of the C-prints and the videos.

Some think of the narrative as an unnecessary intrusion, and it is certain that you can know nothing about Slick and still be knocked out by the computer-generated works. Isn't the beauty enough?

It's good to be gorgeous, but even better to be compelling. Blake's stories are just that. If the artist is generous enough to allow a clearer view into his head in the form of Slick Rhoades, it seems foolish not to take it. Besides, if a poor, brain-damaged bloke like Slick can knock down dinosaurs of Western civilization, move to L.A. and live in peace with his Chemical Sundown, shouldn't that bode well for the rest of the art world?

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Laura Lark