More than a decade ago, a group of Fort Worth photographers formed an artist collective to jumpstart their careers. The group has long since disbanded, but its members have gone on to have successful art careers. This weekend, they reunite for a show at a Fort Worth gallery. Here’s the story of the man who brought them all together.
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By day, Christopher Blay curates one of Tarrant County College’s galleries. But among Fort Worth artists, he’s a curator of people.
It all started back in 2000, when he invited some of his photographer friends to his Fort Worth duplex to figure out how they could work together. The collective, called Group f.8, organized shows for a few years before disbanding. But this weekend, William Campbell Contemporary Art will open “Deserts, Seas and Journeys,” the group’s first show in nearly a decade.
“There was this great youthful sense of possibility and making things happen,” says Julie Almendral, one of the photographers at that first meeting. “And in myself, I feel like that sense has sort of diminished over the years, but Chris has completely kept it alive.”
With his work, Blay’s equal parts subversive, humorous and skeptical. He once organized an art auction called “Velveasl!” asking 20 artists to make paintings on velvet. He’s also put together several Thrift Art Gallery auctions. For those, he collects art from thrift stores, starts the bidding at 50 cents and watches as people drive up the price of art that maybe used to hang on someone’s refrigerator. All the money went to charity.
And, of course, there’s the videos he’s made with his alter ego, Frank Artsmarter.
This video is an infomercial for a seminar Frank offers to artists. From the sounds of it, even well-known local artists like Annette Lawrence have Frank to thank.
Of course, Frank never actually offers any of his tips in the video. For Blay, that’s part of the point.
“Some of the questions that I talk about are what’s the value of art, who decides what that value is and this sort of cult of personality that develops around art and artists,” Blay says. “It’s a critical way of looking at it, but as an alter ego, it’s a way of talking about it that defuses the biting criticism that it produces.”
Still, that begs the question: Isn’t it awkward – or even dangerous – for an artist and curator to take his field to task?
“You would think that it would,” Blay says with a laugh. “But such is the nature of the beast that everything that opposes it becomes a part of it. So there’s no anti-art, there’s no protesting art. Art will consume that and it will become art. So I have no danger of running afoul of the establishment that I am deeply a part of.”
It helps that Blay also asks these questions through his work. For the f:8 show, Blay has contributed a series of photographs he calls “anti-graphs.”
“These are basically latent images that were from expired Polaroid photographs that I made,” he says. “So all that remains are the dried dyes that are a part of the process. So I scanned those and presented them as images.”
That’s right. For a photography show, Blay’s submitted pictures that look like accidents.
“For me, that says a lot about imagemaking and about photography. … I see, instead of windows into the world, screens that obscure what’s in front of us. So these images speak a lot to that.”
Blay came to art later in life than his contemporaries and still has reservations about how the art world operates. But there’s one element of his artistic life he has no reservations about: the city he practices in.
“I think it’s important to continue to build the art community that already exists in Fort Worth even bigger so that the people that have just started making art in Fort Worth within the past five years and the people that have made art in Fort Worth for the past 20 years can continue to sustain this art community.”
And that’s where Blay and his alter ego differ. Frank Artsmarter likes to talk about doing things the smarter way. Blay’s actually doing it.