Though multimedia artist Christopher Blay definitely has a signature style, the 44-year-old Fort Worthian had something of an epiphany last week, when he attended a lecture at Southern Methodist University by Chicago artist Theaster Gates. A Loeb Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Design, the late-thirtysomething Gates isn’t just an artist. In addition to creating installations for museums, Gates also helps restore poor neighborhoods by converting abandoned buildings into cultural spaces –– for his Dorchester Project in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood, Gates acquired an abandoned two-story property in 2009 and is transforming it into a library, slide archive, and soul food kitchen. “You can say it’s art and try to build that art-fence around it, but he resists that in a way that makes sense,” Blay said.
Instead of simply “artist,” the term “visionary” might be more apropos for Gates, with whom Blay found a lot of common ground via a post-lecture conversation at an acquaintance’s Dallas apartment. “The point is that you can make art outside of that boundary of the [art-industrial] complex,” Blay said.
In Fort Worth, Blay is probably the artist least likely to be put into a box. His multimedia work verges on multi-disciplinary, continually decreasing the distance between Christopher Blay the artist and Chris Blay the person, Near Southside neighbor, friend, co-worker, and father of three young children. He’s in galleries –– for his installations, he relies mostly on found objects, from discarded microfilm machines to empty ink bottles and toy soldiers. He’s part of the dreaded establishment –– having earned his bachelor’s of fine arts degree from Texas Christian University in 2003, Blay has been working for the past couple of years as curator of Art Corridor II, the gallery of Tarrant County College (Southeast Campus).
Blay also is in the popular consciousness. For more than a decade, he’s been hosting his annual thrift-art auctions, in which bidders vie for outwardly crappy pieces of art that Blay has salvaged from thrift stores and garage sales across Texas. He also is a founding member of the Homecoming Committee, a Fort Worth collective keen on art pranks and community involvement.
Finally, Blay will soon be a part of your civic consciousness. Instead of pulling legs only once a year, whenever the thrift-art auction rolls around, Blay has decided to pull them more frequently. Like a vast majority of his previous projects, his new ones will also question Art-with-a-capital-A. But unlike his previous works, his new ones won’t always be satirical and will be presided over mainly by Frank Artsmarter, a persona that Blay adopted a couple of years ago. The character knows everything –– and nothing –– about contemporary art. He is “sort of like an institutional critique disguised as an institutional critique,” Blay said.
Perhaps Artsmarter’s most popular piece is “Frank Artsmarter Stands for Art,” in which Blay (as Artsmarter) stood for six consecutive hours in front of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. A video clip of the stunt –– not all six hours –– can be accessed via www.blayblogger.blogspot.com. The next thrift-art auction –– this weekend at a gallery that no one would confuse with a thrift store, William Campbell Contemporary Art –– may be Blay’s last. Artsmarter has a lot of work to do, starting with Art the Smarter Way, a forthcoming seminar at a local hotel, an event that may or may not be satirical. “You’ll just have to come check it out,” he said. “It may be actual instruction. It may be further subversion.”
A 20-minute infomercial for the seminar will be screened at the auction.
Blay started out innocently enough, earning his associate’s of arts degree in photography from TCC in 2000. However, upon graduating, the young artist quickly perceived The Establishment’s myriad shortcomings. “I was already at the point of just looking at the institutions of art and thinking there’s something there not working for me,” he said.
The thrift-art shows/auctions were already in full swing when Blay got into TCU. The first auction, in a house in Arlington Heights, was the result of some introspection. His soul-searching revealed that The Establishment is a system, a heartless, mindless machine fueled by its own momentum. “It’s like a chess game,” he said. “There are so many mutations, but there are a finite number of moves. … I didn’t have my own system … but the thing that made the most sense to me was making fun of it.”
Locations for the thrift-art show/auction changed over the years –– Gallery 414, The Wreck Room, and Blay’s Southside garage among them. That his modest thrift-art auction has for the past two years been taking place at a well-respected gallery could be seen as something of a dialectical coup. “The levels of subversion are so fucking thick,” Blay said. “I’m like Donnie Brasco in this thing. I’m deep undercover.”
The difference-maker is the creation of value –– sometimes out of thin air. Blay said that at some memorable auctions he’s seen hilariously bad artworks go for upward of $80 –– even though bidding always starts at 50 cents. By hanging the art in a formal setting and by generating media attention, Blay is creating a market, generating value, where none existed before. The same people scoffing at bad paintings in thrift stores are the same people shelling out cash for just-as-bad paintings at the auctions. “You wouldn’t pay eighty bucks for a painting at a thrift store,” Blay said. “You pay ten bucks, and you feel like you’re getting ripped off. But you go to a gallery and [the painting is] on a gallery wall, it’s part of the system.”
Blay uses auction money to purchase more thrift art. Putting himself in the shoes of “the guy on the street,” he isn’t thumbing his nose at quality –– he understands traditional beauty and can distinguish a Monet or Picasso from Grandma’s or Grandpa’s painterly weekend endeavors. However, Blay believes that, frankly, a lot of contemporary art is cheap and easy. “The only thing holding it against the wall isn’t the nail but the art-historical context in the form of the giant portfolio that precedes [the artwork].”
One of his/Artsmarter’s recent pieces, Modern Ruined, Thick and Wordy, played off a recent non-satirical exhibit, Modern Ruined II, at the ultra-hip TCU gallery Fort Worth Contemporary Arts. In his show, at a historic Southside apartment complex, Blay recreated the pieces in the gallery exhibit. “I respect those [Contemporary Arts] people,” Blay said, “but in the same breath that I’m saying, ‘Yes, I wanna see more of that shit,’ I’m also saying, ‘I’m not that far removed from a guy on the street who knows zero about art.’ ”
In many ways, Blay is like a DJ, appropriating, sampling, and mashing up popular motifs and iconography. In a recent Dallas exhibit, Art Depreciation, he mashed up our entertainment and art complexes, producing pieces by “Samuel L. Jackson Pollock,” “L’il Wayne Thiebaud,” “Anselm Keifer Sutherland,” “Steely Dan Flavin,” and “Carl Andre the Giant,” among others. “I was in Artsmarter mode, not because I hate those artists but because I love them,” Blay said. “I’m not saying, ‘Fuck art. I don’t want to be a part of it.’ I’m saying, ‘Look. This is a system like any other system.’ ”
Humor rules a lot of Blay’s work, but like Chicago’s Gates, Blay is civic-minded. Last summer, he spent a day at Haltom City’s library recording the voices of residents reflecting on their community. “I don’t want to be in this category of artists or performers or designers,” Blay said. “I just want to be the guy out there that makes the things he wants to make and does the things he wants to do.”
12th Annual Thrift Art Gallery Show and Auction
Sat 7-8:30pm at William Campbell Contemporary Art, 4935 Byers Av, FW. Free. Bidding starts at 50 cents. 817-737-9566.