For years Dike Blair has been exploring the consequences for subjectivity of living in a thoroughly designed world. His role as both artist and writer has been to examine the spaces and situations that reveal the hand of architects, designers, advertisers, and engineers in manipulating our aesthetic experience of things. For Blair, whether we are at home, in the workplace, traveling, or out shopping, the characteristic feature of living here, now, is that everything we encounter has already been arranged for our comfort and enjoyment. Needless to say, this fact complicates the job of the artist, historically the person responsible for making the world look good. Blair’s paintings and sculptures suggest that one of the things an artist can do in this situation is to reflect on the way beauty is put to use.
His artistic investigation is split into two parallel practices. The first is the production of small gouache paintings, derived from his photographs of landscape fragments. The second is the fabrication of sculptures in which the materials of work and leisure—carpeting, tile, fluorescent lighting, photographic transparencies—are assembled into abstract, symbolic landscapes. Both practices demonstrate a hyper-awareness of the nuance; each detail, from the coil of an extension cord to the position of a tree branch, is calculated to create an atmosphere conducive to the detached contemplation of the everyday. The works function like Brian Eno’s ambient music: rather than aggressively soliciting attention, they’re just there, tastefully calibrating one’s experience of the moment.
Blair’s trajectory over the past few years has been towards sparer, more refined presentations. In the gouaches, this means the elimination of extraneous details—cars, ashtrays, chairs, highways—until what remains is the minimum information necessary to express a domesticated nature: window and sky, flower in garden, a manicured branch. For the sculptures this movement can be traced through their disappearing titles: consider the haiku-derived "evening shadows steal across and up the folding screen—a passing winter shower" from 1999 as opposed to the laconic single sculpture in the current exhibition, "at a."
The consequence of this refinement is that the works get steadily closer to conventional notions of beauty. It is both exciting and unnerving to see an art of enormous formal rigor and thoughtfulness flirt with the aesthetics of inspirational posters and good corporate design. The question becomes, can a language this reduced express the specificity of Blair’s position in the field of design and decoration?
Of course, this may only be a problem if one considers Fine Art and applied design to be antithetical. The philosophy of design as an enhancement of everyday life was once espoused by modernist artists, architects, and designers who attempted to transform consciousness through more rational pictures, buildings, and furniture. The trouble comes in when this aestheticization of living reconciles us to the structures of society but makes us forget that we have other options with respect to those structures, like changing them.
Blair is clearly sympathetic to the theory that art and design can and should make our experience of the world—and that includes its workplaces and shopping centers—better. Moreover, it is a premise of his work that subjective experience is possible within an environment dictated by corporate aims, and one can express such experience using a language not unlike that of mainstream design. He also seems uninterested in making the type of ritualized, anti-corporate declaration of romantic alienation that we so often see in contemporary art, and so often masks complicity with institutions of power. So it is perhaps more of a testament to the strength and complexity of the work that it doesn’t announce its intentions too readily, or feel the need to guard against potential misreadings. Like ambient music, it can be played anywhere and still be what it is.