The Logic of the Underneath: Michael Blair’s Surface-Screens

Michael Frank Blair,  Untitled 11  (2016), Oil and mixed media on linen, 48 x 30 inches

Michael Frank Blair, Untitled 11 (2016), Oil and mixed media on linen, 48 x 30 inches

by Lucy McGuigan

In the last century, painting’s move toward self-awareness has largely relied upon purifying reductions and articulations of materiality—a historically-specific notion of self-reflexivity bound up in the criticism of Clement Greenberg and since reconciled, as evidenced by recent returns to realism. However, ironic accentuations of the pictorial perimeter, evaded by the Abstract Expressionists, have long been a hallmark of the self-aware image. In this regard Michael Blair’s Untitled 11 (2016) inherits an older tradition of meta-pictorial meditation which dovetails its Modernist lineage.[1] Each of the four sides of the support is delineated with a rectangular outline. Filled with scumbled swaths of black, salmon, sage, and ochre, these painted parapets—adopting the aesthetic of the archetypal childhood crayon drawing, the edges wobbling and tapering witheringly at the ends—frame a spray-painted olive drab center, pointing inward toward the inconsequentiality of a pictorial field devoid of figural elements and outward toward its ontological dependency on the terminus of the support.

While it may be argued that all abstract paintings, in a sense, articulate the conditions of their own making, Blair’s efforts to draw attention to the materiality of the pictorial support reference an earlier mode of self-reflexive commentary, harkening back to early Netherlandish painting’s visual punning of the frame. Like Jan Gossart’s Portrait of Hendrik III (c. 1516-17), Blair’s painting redoubles the linear edges of the stretcher bars, raising the question of painting’s physical and metaphysical limits. This iconography plays upon both the linguistic and visual homography between the enclosing, decorative frame and the underlying frame of the support. Orthogonality, it acquiesces, is the linchpin of both painting’s making and its reception. Painting has always had the rectilinear parameters of its division from the world built into it.

The role of the frame with respect to painting has garnered considerable critical attention, preoccupying the minds of Immanuel Kant and later Jacques Derrida, who exposed an inconsistency in Kant’s argument and redefined the frame.[2] For Derrida, the frame is inextricably linked to the work of art but—paradoxically—is responsible for establishing its autonomy. Blair’s pantomimed frame does not, like the Derridean parergon, place the bounds of the work in the peril of indeterminacy. Oscillating between figure and frame, pointing to something behind it rather than outside of it, the painted passe-partout does not want for an ergon but satedly constitutes the whole of the work. It has fulfilled painting’s essential requirement, and thus betrays the fallacy that frames extend—rather than structure—the painted image.

The only elements in the work that make overtures toward a conventional figure-ground relationship are two empty cartouches layered over the colored borders, which mirror both the silhouettes of the four painted fortifications and the internal vacancy of the frame they comprise. These further emphasize the flat, quadrate schema as painting’s ultimate defining condition. While Blair is hardly the first painter to draw attention to painting’s embeddedness in its rectilinear idiom, he marries the surface-oriented, medium-specific ethos of Modernist painting with our current culture’s technologically-mediated apperception of figure and ground in order to cleverly comment on the state of the painterly craft in the present era.

The work of Michael Frank Blair represents a twenty-first-century departure from the window/surface dichotomous paradigm of painting. This dichotomous paradigm and subsequent responses in the realm of conceptual art and performance, which take place “in front of the surface” has received its fair share of critical examination within the canon of painting itself, such as the deft satire of Mark Tansey’s A Short History of Modernist Painting (1982).[3] While contemporary artists tend to comment on this historical narrative from outside the purview of abstraction, Blair remains resolutely wedded to evincing the materiality of paint and canvas, exploiting the genre’s capacity for self-critical commentary.

On the one hand, Blair’s canvases adopt the surface-based strategies of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, treating the canvas as an archival record of painterly interaction and a repository of ephemera. Yet these tableaus are also screens to look through; transparent forms are layered as a visual puzzle for the viewer’s eye to penetrate and individual elements are rendered finite and bounded—vestiges of the early modern impulse to approximate the behind and the beyond of the pictorial surface. In Blair’s works, what lies behind is not simulated but made literal: the wooden structures concealed behind the canvas are visualized through formal echoes of their arrangement. It seems Blair’s conceptual paradigm—to use Nanna Verhoeff’s metaphor for the touchscreen—is that of the dirty window, which allows us to be privy to the underneath at the same time its surface serves as a vehicle for haptic encounters.[4]

Michael Blair earned his MFA in 2012 from the University of North Texas, beginning his graduate education the year that Apple released the iPhone 3GS and reported the billionth download from its App Store, and graduating the year worldwide smartphone user base hit one billion. Recalibrating his artistic practice on the eve of a global paradigm shift, Blair largely distanced himself from the post-impressionist landscapes of his pre-graduate career to, as he phrases it on his website, “explore possible connections between objects and ideas” in abstract paintings.

Blair’s most recent works, which almost ritually adhere to a 48 x 30-inch vertical format, directly reference the aspect ratios of smartphones and tablets. Blair writes, “This vertical format I think grew out of the new pictorial orientation of space being forged and proliferated by handheld screens. Although I don't own or use one, I understand the profound impact of this new kind of ether, a kind of infinite, and infinitely flat space, that relates to abstraction in some ways.”[5]

In towing the line between pure facture and formal delineations in order to produce works which mediate on the enterprise of painting itself, Blair’s work challenges the window/surface paradigm from the perspective of a cultural moment where the surface and screen do not constitute a dialectical duality but rather two indissoluble modes of the touchscreen’s graphical user interface (GUI). Blair’s paintings allude to the operative mode of the smartphone and the tablet, which depend upon the user’s acknowledgement of screen as a flat plane with virtually layered, discrete, and moveable components. While these devices serve as primary site of display for window-like lens-based media, the viewing subject must suspend the illusion that these images portend. The touchscreen employs a series of semiotic interventions to encode its own simulacral status: icons which increasingly verge on symbols, dim when pressed and slide in rigid rows over the simulated ground, and (most importantly) the clearly defined, rectilinear bounds of the screen.

Blair’s paintings similarly announce their own metaphysical margins on the level of the surface. The artist’s demarcations of the pictorial support began in 2011, with Untitled 3-9. A vein of aubergine begins in the bottom left of the canvas and snakes around two corners before veering off-course, blending with a streak of white in a visceral comingling of sanguineous and pallid. While this sort of structural reinforcement reappears in several successive endeavors, more recent works thematize the underlying cross-bars (visualized in a 30 x 30 inch mixed-media work from 2014) or the corner brace, whose form manifests in works like The World Is Dumb (2015), where ochre stipples outline the top-right corner. This theme achieves its most pronounced expression in a 2014 work which—rather than formally referencing the underlying structure—strips the canvas nearly bare in order to expose its scaffolding. Evoking Cornelius Gijsbrechts’s Reverse of a Framed Painting (1668), the work takes painting’s wooden, structural frame as its central motif. While Gijsbrechts doubled the image of the reverse on the canvas surface, capitalizing on the viewer’s preconceptions of painting’s frontal orientation, Blair denies the possibility of a front and back, instead dismantling the illusion that painting is nominally contingent on the application of paint to the canvas surface and instead revealing its indebtedness to its structural schema.

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	mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}   Michael Blair,  Untitled 9  (2015), oil and marker on linen, 48 x 30 inches

Michael Blair, Untitled 9 (2015), oil and marker on linen, 48 x 30 inches


Untitled 9 (2015) deliberately subverts our expectations of pictorial structure and in so doing concede painting’s dependence on these formal determinants. Rather than occupying the four corners established by the abutment of the stretcher bars, four corner-brace-like right triangles in various shades of brown huddle in the upper third of the pictorial space, overlapping in brash defiance of what we know to be their configuration behind the linen. In the middle portion, pale blue and red-pink rectangles create a grid which emulates the color scheme of schoolchildren’s’ lined paper. Blair leaves the bottom quarter of the surface empty, frustrating any easy resolution of the pattern. The lined-paper motif and Blair’s color choices generally evoke a tableau of a pre-digital childhood spent in craft-supply-strewn rec rooms, garages and unfinished basements: a bygone notion of play. This aura of nostalgia recurs throughout Blair’s oeuvre.

In some of Blair’s recent works, faded puffy stickers—featuring such 1980s staples as Conan the Barbarian and Knight Rider’s KITT—are affixed to the linen support using the viscous substrate of the acrylic paint as adhesive. These stickers were sourced from a door in the Denton, TX house into which the artist and has family moved in 2010. In most instances, these pop-cultural relics are spontaneously placed to reinforce the notion of what Leo Steinberg famously called the “flatbed picture plane,” treating the painting’s surface as the site of operational processes.[6] When Blair does foray into figuration, it is nearly always under the guise of found imagery, incorporating his children’s stick-figure forms or even his own prior works. In The World Is Dumb, miniature landscapes that the artists painted in New Mexico only months before are repurposed as handbills to reify the planarity of the canvas. This inclusion of “found” objects, rather than attempting any kind of representationalism, serves only to underscore Blair’s treatment of the surface as a cache devoted to the artifacts of painting itself: a dynamic workstation of hovering, manipulable icons that contrasts with the static decoupage of the Modernists.

For the most part, Blair preferences elemental, pared-down forms realized as outlines or amorphous paint daubs. Blair applies paint directly from the tube, evoking Marcel Duchamp’s declaration that the tube of paint is itself a readymade.[7] Lines exactly the width of a paint tube’s aperture pervade Blair’s canvases, terminating in source-betraying dollops. A recent painting, Untitled 3 (2016), further extends the implications of this project. The compositional logic of the piece seems closely related to the organizing principle of the artist’s palette: similarly-hued smears of paint form tightly-nestled constellations. It is with this sort of painterly facture that Blair most closely emulates the aesthetic of his Modernist predecessors. However, the pigmentation of the palette mounted for our display traces its genealogy through a longer history of the medium. While much contemporary painting adopts the chroma of electroluminescence, Blair’s inclination toward neutral earth tones and cadmium brights aligns his practice with landscape painting. Blair’s is a specifically painterly mode of resistance to the digital environment. 

A century has passed since the advent of abstract painting, and the crisis that painterly modernism seemed to foreshadow—the inevitable conclusion that painting would be reduced to the blank canvas—has come and gone. Yet, painting’s trajectory has always been circumscribed by each successive episteme’s own temporally-specific understanding of media and its corporeal form, and thus technological developments necessitate reconfigurations. In the 20th century, which continued to cling to print media even as television and film expanded the horizon of visual media, notions of surface continued to hinge upon the models of the bulletin board, the scrapbook, and the tabletop. The 21st century, which has witnessed the development, standardization, and ubiquity of the touchscreen, imposes its own regime of tactile visuality. Through painting, Blair, who evades the near-inescapable pull of the handheld device, has the clarity to deconstruct the new visuo-haptic paradigms the rest of us—held captive by the screen—have merely accepted.

Learn more about Michael on his Artist Profile

[1] The term “self-aware image” is borrowed from Victor Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-painting, translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[2] See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement §14, and Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Ian MacLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[3] Tansey is quoted in Vivien Raynor, “Mark Tansey in First Solo Show,” New York Times, November 5, 1982.

[4] Nanna Verhoeff, Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), 82.

[5] Michael Frank Blair, email message to author, November 3, 2016.

[6] Leo Steinberg, “The Flatbed Picture Plane,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 61-98.

[7] Marcel Duchamp, “I Propose to Strain the Laws of Physics,” interview with Francis Roberts, ArtNews 67, no. 8 (December 1968): 47. See also Thierry de Duve, “The Readymade and the Tube of Paint,” Artforum 24, no. 9 (May 1986): 110-121.