“Improvising: Julie Blackmon,” Haw Contemporary

Julie Blackmon’s photographs, typically replete with the antics of a motley crew of kids, take place in familiar-looking living rooms, back yards, and neighborhood play areas. Her photographs are gorgeous, and at first glance seem deceptively simple. But multiple viewings reveal that Blackmon’s pictures are, on a profound level, subtly organized orchestrations of the psychological, the art historical, the cinematic and the metaphysical.

Blackmon’s storylines run a fine line between “Lord of the Flies” and a Hallmark greeting card. Free range kids populate her pictures, and in all her works, the threat of deviant childhood behavior and/or impending harm, due to the absence of caretaking adults, is a constant footnote. Sharp objects, such as the knife in “Spray Paint,” where three babies are by themselves, often appear as props in Blackmon’s art.

While her works possess the spontaneity of random snapshots, Blackmon judiciously choreographs each shoot, with some input from her subjects; it’s this combination of the real and the artificial that keeps us looking again and again.

Billy Collins, American Poet Laureate from 2001 – 2003, placed an image of Blackmon’s on the cover of “The Rain in Portugal,” his 2016 best-selling poetry book. He also owns several of her works. “The hidden but findable details in Julie Blackmon’s photographs work to slow down the speed of our noticing,” Collins wrote in a recent email. “Our double and triple takes only add to the pleasurable intrigue of these gradually revealing, carefully staged moments.”

A native of Springfield, Missouri, Blackmon still lives on the same block where she grew up. She came from a large family, and many of her relatives live nearby. The children in her photos are often nieces and nephews, as well as their friends, and other kids who live within a few blocks of Blackmon’s home. (The families of the children in Blackmon’s photography get copies of the photos their offspring are in).

In a recent interview, Blackmon said she works loosely in the manner of a filmmaker and also a writer. “I have an idea of what I want, but I also let certain moments happen. There may be a documentary quality to my work, but I do not make documents. I work like a fiction writer. I create an imaginary world that is fun to step into; it feels like play when I do this.

“The kids are thrilled to be in the pictures, but I don’t overdo it with them. I know I only have 10 minutes at most to work with them.”

A selection of works by Julie Blackmon (Haw Contemporary)

With their emphasis on the everyday, Blackmon’s invented suburban tableaux have been compared to those of Cindy Sherman’s and Gregory Crewdson’s; the joie de vivre of her subjects recalls the boundless energy of Helen Levitt’s images of New York street kids from the1940s. But Blackmon’s scenarios, as evidenced in “Improvising,” carve out their own, unique territory. Unexpected and occasionally menacing, subtexts always lurk amidst Blackmon’s depictions of idyllic childhood pastimes. There are allusions to specific movies in some works, while others are quotations of artworks by some of her favorite artists and illustrators, which include Balthus, Dutch Old Masters and Edward Gorey.

In “Bubble,” two beautiful babies eat apples inside a giant transparent bubble. Are they trapped, or being protected? In “Treehouse,” a small child dangles in a bucket tied to a rope, held by older kids up high in a tree, in a situation that looks as precarious as it might be fun. Two young girls in matching red dresses — they could be extras in the movies “Demon Seed” or “The Shining” — stand next to one another while staring down at a little boy on a tricycle in “New Neighbors.”

Blackmon had a wide-ranging religious upbringing as a child, and cosmological references also crop up in her art. There are multiple scenes with rivers in the exhibit, including “River” and “Lindenlure,” two extraordinary views of water. “Artists through the centuries have always painted water scenes,” Blackmon notes, and she is not averse to having these read as baptismal scenes. Orbs, spheres and circles are leitmotifs in many of her images, whether the balls in “Midwest Materials,” the inner tubes and beach balls in the water pictures, the hanging bulb in “Fixer Upper” (which has another pair of twins), the water tub in “Bathers,” or the giant white sphere on the lawn in “Spray Paint.”

The ancient Greeks believed that spheres were symbols for female spirituality. Wassily Kandinsky wrote that circles in artworks “contain the seeds of infinity,” while Carl Jung thought that a circle or sphere was a “symbol of the self” or a facet of the collective human self. In many cultures circular shapes are often seen as symbols of the cosmos.

It’s possible that all of Blackmon’s photographs represent a version of the “axis mundi,” a term that denotes a representation of the cosmos on the ground, typically connected to both the heavens and the underworld. For ancient peoples that might have been an altar or tabernacle. In today’s secular world it includes one’s dwelling place, and areas that extend just beyond it. In other words, as religious studies historian Mircea Eliade wrote, the particular spot that one occupies stands “at the center of the world,” and is a microcosm of the world itself.

This place is often shown, literally, as being in touch with the heavens, often in the form of some kind of pole, such as a tree. The ladder and tree in Blackmon’s “Lot for Sale,” the vertical rope and tree house in “Treehouse,” the references to forests and skies in “Bubble,” and even the small landscape painting in the corner of “New Neighbors,” can be seen to represent the cosmos. The large bodies of water in “River” and “Lindenlure” show humans at the juncture between the celestial heavens and the underworld of the sea, which symbolically represents, in many belief systems, the land of the ancestors, the unconscious, and death itself.

In these theological and philosophical traditions (which include Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, African and Meso-American theologies), humankind is seen as needing to bridge all three planes of existence in order to grow beyond the microcosmic realm and lay claim to the greater macrocosmic world.

Blackmon’s world in Springfield, as everyday as it may seem to many viewers, is obviously sacred territory for her and her community. In her extraordinary body of work, by honoring her roots and home life she helps us see our own spaces in the same manner.

“Improvising: Julie Blackmon” continues at Haw Contemporary Crossroads, 19 W. 19th St., through Nov. 21. Hours are noon to 5 Saturdays and by appointment Tuesday-Friday. The work will then be viewable at Haw Contemporary Stockyards, 1600 Liberty St., through December 31. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, 816.842.5877 or www.hawcontemporary.com.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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