|Bring Your Bar Codes
by Kent Wolgamott
There is nothing more ubiquitous in our computer-driven society than the bar code. A combination of lines, numbers and letters stamped onto every product we purchase, the bar code has no intrinsic aesthetic value. It merely functions as a utilitarian digital tool for the retail industry.
But in the computer of Scott Blake, the bar code serves a far different purpose, becoming a symbol of our data-drenched existence and an element to be manipulated to create imagery and stimulate thought on topics from consumerism to religion and individual identity.
Literally making what critic/philosopher Arthur Danto called the "transfiguration of the commonplace," Blake takes bar codes and turns them into art — art that is simultaneously pop and op, intellectual and personal, minimal and ocular, appropriated and original.
In "Bring Your Bar Codes," his exhibition now on view at the bemisUNDERGROUND at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Blake's art ranges from portraits and paintings to collages made of bar codes clipped from packages and interactive, multimedia constructions.
The most instantly eye-catching elements in the exhibition are what Blake calls "Bar Code Portrait Prints."
Blown up to wall size for the exhibition, the portraits are inspired by Roy Lichtenstein's Benday dot paintings, pictures which look like huge versions of comic strip panels. But rather than creating generic images, Blake's portraits draw on the iconography of Andy Warhol, who fittingly enough is one of Blake's subjects.
Like Warhol, Blake has constructed portraits of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong while adding Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronald Reagan, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates to his pantheon of symbolic personalities.
Using a Photoshop formula, Blake arranges the bar codes into patterns ala Lichtenstein's dots, which, from a distance, reveal the faces. But up close, the spirals and wavy lines play in the eye, creating a psychedelic, op art experience.
Beyond the way the images are created, there is a critical difference between Warhol's pop art and Blake's bar code icons.
Warhol was fascinated with celebrity and the popular image; Blake is concerned with data.
That is, Warhol's art reflected the burgeoning consumer society of the early 1960s and the increasing commodification in the rich and famous.
Blake's portraits argue that the thoroughly commodified celebrities we feel we know through television, the movies and other media are, in reality, nothing more than a combination of the data we have received, simultaneously artificial and real.
To that end, the bar codes in the portrait of Mao are taken from his books of poetry. Oprah's face is formed from bar codes of books selected for her book club, Ozzy is made out of CD bar codes and Arnold from codes on the boxes of his films.
Arnold's image was lifted from the internet Website for his California gubernatorial campaign. Likewise, the other images come from the Web. That technique makes the portraits a textbook example of appropriation art for the digital age, driving home the point that in the world of the Web almost everything is available to everyone for their own use.
The use of everyday objects and much of the philosophy that underlies Blake's art can be traced to Marcel Duchamp, whose "readymades" and other work form the foundation of conceptual art.
The conceptual element in Blake's work is most apparent in "Bar Code Word Paintings," a series of small black-and-white paintings of the codes in which the numbers are replaced with words like "PAINTING," "ARTWORK," "ORIGINAL," "CONSUMER," "SELL OUT," "WARHOL," "JESUS," "ALLAH," "BUDDHA" and "SATAN."
Visually, the paintings are nearly identical, part of the minimalist influence in Blake's work. But the charged words give each piece a different resonance and paired in various combinations would create all sorts of verbal sparks.
Equally as conceptual are the "Title Card Artworks" that fill one of the niches in the underground gallery space.
Blown up versions of the labels that accompany art work in galleries and museums, the title card works are critiques of the gallery/museum and of the commercial aspect of the art world — a Duchamplike prank that would earn cash ($75 to $100) for something that is seen as augmenting the actual "art."
Blake then undoes the intellectual impersonality of conceptual art with a series of "Bar Code Collages — Datascapes."
Tucked away in the back of the gallery, these small collages are drawn from subjects that are personal to Blake and are made by affixing the actual bar codes from products onto paper.
One of the collages comes from items purchased by his late grandfather. Another, "Summer's Make-Up," takes the form of a flower and is comprised of the bar codes on the packaging of the deodorant and tampons left behind when his ex-wife suddenly moved out.
By itself, the data contained in those bar codes is ordinary and uninformative. But it nonetheless paints at least a partial picture of the person who made the purchases, bringing the issue of individual identity in a digital, mass-produced world into intimate focus.
Further emphasizing that intimate domestic theme is a "fireplace" crafted out of styrofoam covered with bar codes that uses a video monitor to display a loop of product images overrun with bar codes.
The "fireplace" is one of two electronic pieces in the show. The other uses a bar code scanner that the viewer places on codes in a rounded room, resulting in a digitized voice speaking in verses and epigrams from the Koran, Buddhist scripture and the Bible.
That religious theme continues in a digital piece that explores the scale of blacks, grays and white that Blake uses in his portraits and attempts to determine how many pixels made of bar codes are required to create a face.
At about 700 pixels, a facial outline starts to emerge. At 5,000 pixels, the most dense size, is a clearly defined face of Jesus, the most highly charged image Blake could imagine for the piece.
The face of Jesus constructed from bar codes cannot help but raise issues of authenticity, culture and spirituality in a consumer environment. Exactly what is being sold and bought, Blake doesn't specify. But he is clearly confronting that question on multiple levels.
With "Bring Your Bar Codes," Blake, a 28-year-old who moved to Omaha a year ago after living in Georgia and California, instantly establishes himself as one of Nebraska's most important artists. His work has already been written about in publications from the New York Times to the men's magazine FHM. The bemisUNDERGROUND exhibition should bring him the local notice he deserves.
More importantly, Blake makes the kind of challenging, forward-looking, highly charged work that deserves to be seen. You won't soon forget it or stop thinking about the ideas and issues he brings to the surface using a simple, everyday object and his computer.
Printed in Art Papers Magazine, May 2005