Lucas Blalock is best known for his still life photographs that rely heavily on the use of Photoshop tools. Melon Fingers (2015), for instance, relies on the clone stamp tool—designed for removing blemishes—to gracefully dot a cellophane-wrapped seedless watermelon with portions of human fingers. “Florida, 1989,” Blalock’s solo show on view at Galerie Eva Presenhuber in New York through April 10, represents a major shift for the artist. Long concerned with formal questions born from the rise of digital photography, the artist has turned his attention in his new body of work to events from his own life. Below, he details the injury that gave rise to his signature style and discusses the new work he made in response to the resulting surgery.
This exhibition is based on an accident I had as a child. I was ten, and my thumb got amputated on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disney World. My parents called around and learned that there was this new procedure: a surgeon could remove the big toe and put it where the thumb was. We opted for this, even though, as I recall, they only give us 50/50 odds. I see this now as the prequel to, or maybe even the cause for, many aspects of my practice.
I’d been considering making work about this event for a while, but I was a little hesitant because I didn’t want this story to overwhelm all the other stories in the work. Looking back, there are many hands and feet in my pictures. And often, I’m replacing one thing with another. If you wanted to do a psychoanalytic reading of my work, it’d be very easy to draw so much back to the accident. It’s not like I’ve been secretly signaling this story for years, but it’s definitely part of the work. Maybe certain kinds of actions make sense to me because I’ve spent so much of my life thinking about this event.
Above the door to the main room of the gallery, there’s a photograph [Nail Façade / above the door picture (2019)] of a pediment that probably once had a sign on it, but only the nails remain. The nails look something like ingrown hairs or irritated skin. There are several trompe l’oeil architecture moments in the show that I hope remind viewers of their bodies.
Reverse Titanic / Hell is in the Air (2019) is, for me, the exhibition’s centerpiece. It’s a photograph of two decapitated fish head beer koozies making out on the deck of a boat—a friend told me that this was the most romantic picture in the show! I wanted to bring together animation and amputation, turning away from the former’s supposed life-giving qualities. While a lot of my previous work was very concerned with the formal properties of digital photographs, here I’m thinking more about cartoons, and about those moments when fantasy space meets corporeal space. That’s always been in my work, but Disney got me thinking about this ultra-optimistic, ultra-simplified version of fantasy, and about [theorist] Lauren Berlant’s point that optimism involves perpetual postponement. Americans are particularly bad about this.
Throughout, I pair cartoons with consequences, contrasting a cartoon body’s plasticity with real-world corporeality and fragility. Some elements feel like they’re from a cartoon world, while others are much more bodily. Perforated Landing I (2020), for example, is a photograph of a staircase that has these peepholes that peer into these more colorful spaces—spaces that are available yet just out of reach. Bertolt Brecht and Buster Keaton—or metaphors of the backstage more generally—are big influences for my work, in a Wizard of Oz kind of way.
“What’s living and what’s dead?” is really a big question in this show. Downstairs, there are three motorized, rotating sculptures—the series is called “Film-Object” (2020). The first has images of a potato, the second is of this fish that I bought at the supermarket, and the third is of my head. They are animated—in the sense that they move—but in this really deadpan way.
The sculptures are also propped up on chairs or sawhorses instead of pedestals. With my 2D images, you can see a lot of the photoshopping I’ve done. And here, similarly, I wanted to bring my studio into the work. Also, I wanted the basement to really feel like a basement.
With Vessel-Heater Frankenstein (2020), a photograph of two halves of a rubber hot-water bottle metaphorically sewn together, I was thinking about the sutured body. I reread Frankenstein about a year ago: the MIT Press has this cool edition that comes with annotations for scientists and engineers. But it got me thinking about putting something back together in a way that might not work.
When I was younger, I really insisted on defining my practice in relationship to photography. And obviously my work is still deeply indebted to that discipline, but I’m also thinking about many other things. My method is underpinned by technological history, and those sorts of questions are really interesting to me, but they aren’t all that I’m chasing. For me, this show represented a shift from method to content.
—As told to Emily Watlington