By Alan Jacobs
Gregory Blackstock is sixty–one years old. He speaks about a dozen languages and plays any number of musical instruments, but his greatest talent is as an artist: his artwork has appeared at galleries in Seattle, where he lives, and about five years ago he took early retirement from a job he had held for twenty–five years in order to devote himself fully to art and music. To cap off this late–blooming career, last year Princeton Architectural Press published a substantial collection of his drawings.
In light of this impressive resumé, some readers may be surprised to learn that the job from which Blackstock retired was, in his own description, that of "pot–&–dishroom steward" at the Washington Athletic Club. That is, he washed pots. It is also curious that, among the many instruments he can play, his strong preference is for the accordion, "because it's loud." His insistence on playing the accordion at the opening of his 2004 show at the Garde Rail Gallery must have made for an unusual evening for the art–lovers who showed up.
Gregory Blackstock is autistic, and because of his extraordinary gifts he is called a "savant" (a problematic word, I feel). Like many autistic people, Blackstock has a passion for order and precision, which shows up in any number of ways. For instance, the autobiography he hand–wrote for his book, Blackstock's Collections, takes the form of a list—"1. MY DATE OF BIRTH … 2. MY PREVIOUS SCHOOLS OF 1950 TO 1964 … 3. MY USUAL CITY NEWSPAPER ROUTE PERIOD"—and in listing his employment history he notes that he began his job at the Washington Athletic Club on September 9, 1975 and retired on January 12, 2001. Though I said that Blackstock worked there for twenty–five years, he prefers to say that it was twenty–five–and–a–third years.
This precision is central to Blackstock's art as well—though I have no idea whether it affects his accordion playing. The book is called Blackstock's Collections because each drawing is just that, a collection of things belonging to a particular category. I find especially intriguing Blackstock's tendency to give his drawings titles that begin with the definite article: "The Knives", "The Dentist's Tools, "The Memorable Vermont Scenes"—as though he aspires to utter completeness, gathering every member of a given set on a single page.
I take a special pleasure in his animals: "The Crows," "The Colorful King–Size Swallowtail Butterflies of the World," "The Gleaming Chows," and one grouping that for some reason lacks the definite article: "Monsters of the Deep" (perhaps because we don't know all the monsters that lurk in the oceans' unplumbed depths). They are rendered precisely, with careful and subtle shading. I'm a little disappointed, though, that those colorful swallowtails, like most of the other animals, are rendered in pencil only. Only his very recent drawings are likely to be in color: "The Noisemakers" (2005) is vivid, as is, fittingly enough, "The Art Supplies" (2004); and since Blackstock usually gets his colors from Crayola crayons, it's nice to see that he has made (also in 2005) a color drawing of the 64–crayon Crayola box.
Most of the "collections" are perfectly comprehensible, even if we suspect that it's not really possible to get all of "The Knives" on one page (Blackstock manages fifty–one of them, a considerable achievement). But Blackstock's passion for taxonomy gets him into some curious corners. Smack in the middle of "The Bells," among cowbells and bicycle bells and doorbells and the Liberty Bell and the bell of Big Ben, there's a diving bell. Not the same kind of thing, you say? But it's a bell, isn't it? I wonder how Blackstock would respond if someone were to point out to him that in his drawing of "The Drums" he omits the eardrum.
One of the few really heterogeneous collections is "The Noisemakers," a highly colorful and (for Blackstock) rather large drawing, forty–four inches tall, which includes not only whistling skyrockets and M–80 firecrackers and chainsaws, but also "thunder–&–rainstorms" and a scowling face accompanied by a speech balloon containing an unusually symmetrical set of signs indicating unprintable words: "##**@@**##!!!" This noisemaker is labeled as "LOUD FILTHY–MOUTH OFFENDER, THE OVEREMOTIONAL DIRTBAG!"
But in general Blackstock is a careful and logical taxonomist, and for the more tidy–minded among us—present company included—there's aesthetic pleasure to be had not only in Blackstock's skill as a draftsman but also in his possession of what Wallace Stevens famously called the "blessed rage for order." Of course, the order Stevens had in mind is a subtler thing than what Blackstock offers, but they are kindred spirits nonetheless, and it would be a mistake, I think, to associate Blackstock's art too closely with the pathologies of autism, if they are pathologies, or with some kind of childlike "primitivism." It's certainly the case that Blackstock's art looks backwards, but rather than thinking of him as an emissary from the realm of childhood, it's better to consider him as a representative of a now–distant past, when among the roles of the illustrator a central one was to record the world so that others might have access to its rich variety, or so that things might not be lost through the mere passage of time.
Think of the 18th–century artist Piranesi, for example, whose engravings of picturesquely decaying Rome are certainly fantastic in some respects—he places just enough disproportionately tiny people in his cityscapes to make us think those ancient buildings were absolutely colossal—but also reflect a real and deep desire to capture the ancient Romans' remains and to make knowledge of the city available to distant lands and later generations. Or John James Audubon's obsessive quest to paint all of America's birds. That documentary impulse was once central to illustration, if not to what we now call "fine art," and its passing is something to be lamented, especially since our belief that photography straightforwardly captures the–thing–in–itself is a sadly naïve one. (Beginning birdwatchers always want photographic guides because they think photography captures birds "as they really are," but skillful paintings, like those of Roger Tory Peterson, are often more useful: they portray birds as the human eye sees them, or is likely to see them in the field, which is not invariably as the camera's lens captures them. The common belief that photographs record simply and objectively both diminishes the documentary power of illustration and underrates the artfulness of photography.)
So Gregory Blackstock's drawings are a pleasant and instructive reminder of a time when the artist had to record the world because there was no other way to document its beauties. Such illustrations may not approach the depth and subtlety of truly "fine" art, but they represent a wonderful union of what the poet W. H. Auden, in an essay on "The Poet and the City," calls the "gratuitous" and the "utile." Auden reminds us that there was once a time when all the arts had a dimension of usefulness: poetry aided the memory, even on as humble a level as "Thirty days hath September," and we should never forget the sheer and astonishing craftsmanship that enabled Bach to crank out all those cantatas, which were invariably useful to the church and as a bonus contain more beauty than seems possible.
As Auden also notes, art has now lost that habit of usefulness and does not seem likely to get it back: when we try to unite the useful and the beautiful, he says, we "fail utterly." Though there are some recent developments in industrial design that give one hope, I think Auden is basically correct. It's difficult to imagine a new Piranesi, or an Audubon for the 21st century. We have turned over the task of documenting the world to the various cameras, and for good reason: they perform the task well. But I hope we may occasionally find more Gregory Blackstocks, artists who—unaware that their labors of documentary love are unnecessary—plunge ahead and do their work, thereby reminding us what it means to look, really to look, at the Creation.
Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.
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