Late in the summer of 2016, Taos artist Jonathan Blaustein had an epiphany after grocery shopping at the Santa Fe Trader Joe's next door to Party City.
If you've ever been to the nationwide franchise, you know it sells confetti, shiny Mylar balloons, plastic whistles and masks, anything one can imagine for a celebration. When the party's over, Blaustein opined, all those plastic party favors morph into a toxic stew that may swirl in our ecosystem for decades.
Blaustein's late summer epiphany is now a visually arresting set of photographs interspersed with sculptures created from party paraphernalia collected from Party City. The social commentary show, titled "Jonathan Blaustein: Party City Is the Devil," can be experienced in Studio 238 mounted in the Peter and Madeleine Martin Gallery at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street. The show is on view now and continues through Nov. 10.
These party decorations have been known to travel by wind and rain to drainage networks that flow into the sea. Plastic waste is found with alarming frequency in the bellies of marine mammals and birds washed up on beaches. Blaustein said he realized with a clear view that "Party City exists to sell trinkets and objects that end up in the trash the day they're used. It's a disposable culture, and one I wanted to put under a microscope with my current work." He also confessed, "I am complicit, I have shopped there. People don't want to be lectured by people who don't have skin in the game."
The prints in this show were shot using natural light, an austere departure from slick commercial photography where colors are saturated and contrast exaggerated to seduce consumers. Blaustein said this show is a "post-Trump" inspiration and compares Party City's marketing strategy to the president's own "bombast humor and braggadocio, Trumpian slick sheen, a disconcerting veneer with rot underneath."
Blaustein said he believes "art has a responsibility to process the big ideas of its time, the abuse of resources and our planetary environment." To sum up his philosophy -"Human beings treat the planet, and the creatures on it, as our own supermarket. We take what we want, with no responsibility to future generations, or countless other species under our dominion."
How can an assemblage of objects like those in "Party City Is the Devil" get us to think about the world differently?
Blaustein explained what he advises students, "Working with symbols is one of the most difficult things to do, as an artist. Real symbols, that refer to ideas, have the power to elevate art to its highest level, but if they're not done just right, work falls flat as derivative, didactic or even kitschy.
"Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup cans are a great example of something that was so perfect, it changed art forever. If he had chosen anything else, we may not be talking about him today. Within photography, after Robert Frank published "The Americans" in the late '50s, a generation of photographers had to ignore jukeboxes, crucifixes and American flags, because he made them his own."
Objects like party supplies fascinate Blaustein because he says "anything that is not a person or a living animal can be considered an object. It's a broad field of inquiry, when you look at it like that."
Blaustein said his attraction to still life and conceptual work is to "make art that doesn't look like other people's work." He found that by treating his studio like a laboratory, it allowed him to innovate. "It's almost circumstantial that I make still lifes - object-oriented work is great for its symbolic properties."
He continued, "As for conceptual art, the best work contains a structure of ideas in addition to the visuals, and conceptual art is idea art, it is always interesting to me as a viewer. At its worst, conceptual art neglects aesthetics and limits improvisation."
Is photography still relevant? According to Blaustein, "Yes and no. Via Instagram, and other social media platforms, photography has become the visual language of our time. It went from being a niche hobby to something that billions of people do every day. It's more relevant than ever and has replaced words as a universal communication method. Each image, or group of images, is now one of a large and endless stream that grows each day.
"I think photographic projects have a much harder time cracking through and impacting culture by themselves. In an era of wraparound media, where people want to read, watch videos and see the pictures in one article, multiple styles of art working together are more effective. It's the main reason I wanted to incorporate 3D work into the 'Party City Is the Devil' show, and viewers, including my parents, said the combination of 2D and 3D work made the ideas resonate for them."
Blaustein has taught photography at University of New Mexico-Taos for many years, and recently founded the Antidote Photo Retreat at his family horse farm outside Taos.
For more information, visit harwoodmuseum.org or call (575) 758-9826.