In visiting the Everson Museum in Syracuse, you could easily miss the exhibition Julie Blackmon: Other Tales from Home tucked in the small Robineau Gallery on the main floor. The exhibit, which closes Sept. 2, contains eight large-scale color photographs depicting family scenes. The images are a cross between common family snapshots and an artfully arranged tableau depicting the chaos of modern family life; and Blackmon seems comfortable straddling the line between reality and manipulation and taking the viewer along for the ride.
Blackmon fills the frame with so much information—in the form of kids, pets, food, plastic toys and other props—the viewer can linger in front of the works, as countless narrative connections spark the imagination. You also find yourself counting the number of kids and the different props in each scene.
Blackmon lives and works in Missouri. In her artist statement, found on her website, julieblackmon.com, she cites the lively narrative paintings of 17th century Dutch artist Jan Steen as an influence on her work. However, it may be Blackmon’s own family life that provides the most inspiration. She is the oldest of nine children and the mother of three, and she says, “These images are both fictional and auto-biographical, and reflect not only our lives today and as children growing up in a large family, but also move beyond the documentary to explore the fantastic elements of our everyday lives, both imagined and real.”
One of the most compelling aspects of her work is the care she takes in capturing children. The young subjects, whether they are her own children, her nieces and nephews or children from the neighborhood, reflect a sweet innocence in front of the camera. They play, pout, and cry, but cuteness is not the aim of the artist; these are not Facebook photos uploaded by proud parents. Instead, even though the scenes are staged, we get the sense these are kids acting like kids in a safe environment surrounded by family. In many cases, the subjects seem unaware of the camera’s presence. The result is Blackmon’s photos possess a timeless quality resembling the iconic American paintings of Norman Rockwell, but with an odd twist thrown in.
In Patio, for example, one of the works in the exhibit, we see what looks like a modern house in a sun-bleached California-type setting. There is a blue inflatable ball on the roof in the top right of the frame and a pink ball in the bottom left. A little girl in a white dress is looking at her reflection in the window, a toddler is scooting around on a blue stroller and a third child is crawling on the floor in the house, just inside the doorway.
A red charcoal grill stands in the middle of the frame with orange flames shooting out, and a large box of McDonald’s French fries rests on a circular table covered with a green tablecloth. A barefoot woman sits in a chair, her face buried in a large-scale glossy magazine called New You. A bag of Lay’s Classic potato chips has been placed near her feet. The viewer is left to wonder: does she know there are children playing close to the open fire? Does she care?
And that’s the beauty of this exhibition. The images remain fertile in your mind, as you think about the families depicted in the scenes. You get the sense it would be fun to spend an evening with them, to take part in the chaos of their meals, games and merriment, while at the same time having the freedom—like an aunt or an uncle—of being able to leave the house at the end of the night.
It also seems Blackmon could revisit this work over and over again, dreaming up more scenarios for her family to act out without the images becoming repetitive. You can just imagine scenes of kids getting ready for school, a baby screaming after dropping its pacifier, toddlers sitting on the kitchen floor and struggling to tie their shoes, little boys chasing frogs or fireflies on the front lawn on a summer evening and little girls standing in front of a full-length mirror, modeling their mothers’ clothes and jewelry.
The one question I keep asking myself again and again in rethinking this exhibition is, for each photograph, how long did it take Blackmon to get the kids to pose exactly as she wanted? And did she have to bribe them with promises of ice cream sundaes or trips to a local water park?