The De-familiarized Intimate 

Artist Laurie Blakeslee

Contemporary art is known more for its questions than its answers. There is now a short history of art that aims not to please but to temporarily befuddle or disturb. It is not designed to provide the viewer with a passively receptive aesthetic experience but to pull the viewer inside the unfamiliarity of the uncertainties it embodies. The point becomes more about the responses and assumptions of the viewer than the vision or mastery of the artist. This art stems from a belief that the artist's job is to disturb complacency and to wake us up where familiarity has lulled us to sleep.

Photographer and Boise State art professor, Laurie Blakeslee, is both a student and artist in this vein. Blakeslee, a native Boisean, received her Bachelor of fine arts in painting from Boise State University and her Master of fine arts in photography from the University of Arizona. Currently she teaches photography, foundations, media literacy, art theory and criticism. Her work has been included in juried shows across the country and she expects to make her tenure at Boise State in the coming year.

Locally, Blakeslee is showing at the Fulton Street Theater lobby. The pieces are from a running series called "Objects." From the title you might expect a collection of lifeless banalities. However, what you are presented with is something quite different. So different, in fact, it is hard to describe. The pictures are framed through a kind of peephole and have connections to the vignette format, which can in turn be associated with the earliest photographs of the nude.

Like those early nudes, Blakeslee's "objects" take full advantage of the voyeuristic qualities of the camera with different results. Blakeslee's pictures are intimate by several degrees more and several degrees less. They are objectively more intimate and macroscopic than familiar and erotic; they lie on the border of medical and sexual intimacy. At the same time, they are less intimate and strange to an almost alienating or grotesque degree. By being both intensely intimate and oddly unfamiliar, they put the viewer in a weird psychological state. The problem becomes how to package your interest in them. They are pictures of the flesh and the body but by close cropping and framing for the sake of ambiguity they are, if I can say this, anatomically eerie. The effect is unsettling to say the least.

Blakeslee's force of voyeuristic interest combined with an image of depersonalized, de-familiarized flesh makes for a strange experience. It's not that the pictures are ugly because they do capture and record the beauty of skin and body at the macroscopic level. It's that without the context of the rest of the human form they're alien. Fleshy growths have a different status than body parts.

For Blakeslee and others working from a critical angle, questions have a kind of necessary permanence. Answers get in the way. It is uncertainty as a form of liberty. The important thing is to keep posing questions, to keep the discussion open.

In an introduction to Blakeslee's work, Lisa Heer, Boise State Assistant Professor, History of Art and Visual Culture, posed the question this way, "What is it exactly that we are viewing and how should we respond? Are these images of usually unremarkable components of our bodily topographies? Or are they of more highly charged, eroticized, taboo crevices or appendages? Do we study such images for the objective knowledge they supposedly report? Or is our desire triggered and our interest become prurient?"

In her recent work, Blakeslee is posing the same quandaries in the medium of video and installation art. The work plays out on television monitors housed in "blackboxes." Viewers are once again, though this time more tacitly, made to peer through a peephole. Like the photographs, the videos explore the body macroscopically and voyeuristically. The effect is filled out by the feelings of expectation one can achieve through the movement and audio of video as opposed to the more static qualities of photographs.

As an artist from the school of provocation and critical conceptualism, Blakeslee is unique in these parts. By making work that seeks to disturb more than please she keeps questions of what art is, of what it should be, and what it can be open for discussion.

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