Teaching with Contemporary Art

Art21 New York Close Up

Teaching with New York Close Up: Lucas Blalock’s 99¢ Store Still Lifes

Lucas Blalock, untitled (crystalline screw), 2009

Lucas Blalock’s only plan is to work… preferably in the evenings. He deals with a set of parameters that his tools provide and brings things he purchases at local discount stores into his apartment. From there it’s open season.

In a world filled with artists that create work in a myriad of settings, Lucas Blalock’s situation is fairly similar to the scenario many of our own students face- working at home and trying to hold down a full-time job (or a full-time class schedule) while attempting to make art in between. And while Blalock often creates art with objects he purchases and photographs, right in the living room of his apartment in Williamsburg, his process is quite unlike many of the students we work with.

In Lucas Blalock’s 99¢ Store Still Lifes the artist talks about discovering and creating visual problems in order to solve them vs. starting with an idea and finding a way to photograph it. Blalock comes at making art from somewhat of an opposite angle than what we may be used to, and certainly opposite of someone such as Paolo Ventura. Instead of following through on plans to photograph particular objects in certain ways, he allows himself to be attracted to different things… and then finds a way to solve the problem of making this thing interesting to a viewer, as well as himself:

Sometimes an object will really give me a simple problem to deal with. Other times it’s much more of a kind of flirtation with the objects in the studio that something gets pulled out of it.

There’s a big part of me that can see educators feasting on a short film like this (it runs about 6 minutes) because it shares examples of things that ARE working for Blalock and also finds time to share what happens when things AREN’T working. For example, towards the end of the segment, we see the artist wrestle (literally, physically) with trying to photograph some multicolored foam he brought into the studio. While obviously excited to use this material at the start, Blalock quickly becomes frustrated with it and decides to wait on trying to capture this particular subject matter. The inspiration may have been there, but the material wasn’t “doing” anything to impress him. Instead of forcing the issue, he simply remarks that he may have to hold the foam in the studio for a while before deciding how to work with it. He doesn’t throw it away. He doesn’t have a fit and trash the joint. He simply decides to wait.

Lucas Blalock’s 99¢ Store Still Lifes is an inspiring piece for teachers and students alike because it also illustrates how one can create a complex and stimulating context for making beautiful works of art in a simple space. But Blalock makes sure we understand it’s not easy. For every 20-25 photographs he takes and develops using his large format camera each week, only one or two “really work”. He goes on to explain that the most successful pictures are ones that “don’t fall into a category”. Perhaps an easy label means the work isn’t complex enough? Regardless, here’s to steering clear of categories.

Check out New York Close Up and please be sure to share any artists you are planning on working with… in and out of the classroom! See you next week.


  1. Ty Clever says:

    Terrific post, Joe–You’re right, so many useful lessons here: (1) that significant work doesn’t have to begin with an earth shattering Concept, but can emerge from an honest, wide-eyed exploration of objects close at hand.

    (2) That limits can enhance, even fuel, the creative process. Blalock works with about every type of limitation imaginable: time (can only work at night); space (small apartment); and of course, materials. Even his main tool, the 4×5 camera, imposes certain restrictions. According to Blalock, the camera “has to be on a tripod so it has these rules built into it.”

    He sums it up nicely: “Maybe that’s where the choices start: These are the conditions of the situation, and then from there I can bring these objects home and deal with these things”

    This reminds me of a passage from Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music:

    “[M]y freedom…consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each of my undertakings.

    “I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles…..The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

    Thanks again.

  2. Jethro says:

    This is perfect for my AP class, I’m trying to get them to see how constraints can be enabling and helpful as the year is just starting and they are trying to figure out how to start their own projects.
    Like you say, I’m definitely ‘feasting’ on this film. I look forward to more of your suggestions

  3. Joe Fusaro says:

    I’m really happy that both of you hooked into this so far. Blalock’s approach to going deeper and exploring complexity (instead of covering a lot of “ground” and getting complicated) is really inspiring. I hope this piece will be especially useful in the classroom.

Leave a Comment