Monday, April 15, 2013

Taboo by Bill Blair at Polychrome reviewed by Philip Willey .


Pocahontas and John Rolfe probably started it. By all accounts they did in fact have a happy marriage. Walt Disney of course added a level of popularization to the story and the Indian Maiden myth worked its way into mass consciousness.

Pocahontas met Rolfe in Jamestown in the early 1600s. It was a mutual attraction. John Rolfe started the Virginia tobacco industry using seeds of the highly addictive Nicotiana tabacum smuggled from Trinidad thus breaking the Spanish monopoly. Pocahontas converted to Christianity, changed her name to Rebecca and visited London. They had a son, Thomas Rolfe, from whom many prominent Americans claim descent. Often with some credibility.

The fantasy of the Cherokee Princess came a little later as part of the Great Western Migration. Pristine wilderness waiting to be staked. Beaver pelts for whiskey. Those were the days eh guys? Oh to be a rugged frontiersman accepted into the tribe with your own tepee, the chief’s daughter and a cozy buffalo blanket. The reality of course was quite different. In all probability the chief’s daughter did not look like Jane Russell and the village could get a visit from General Custer’s gang at any minute. But the fantasy lingers….the ideal combination of free wild spirit and dutiful wife.

This was before gender equality. Aspiring models and starlets in the fifties were not above exploiting male fantasies for their own purposes. They would dress up in flimsy braids, beads and buckskins and pose, generally in studios against a neutral background. Such photos were then used to demonstrate acting abilities and enhance portfolios.


Which brings us in a roundabout way to Bill Blair.

Many in Victoria, and outside, are by now familiar with Blair’s photo montage work, especially his Mexicana and Canadiana pieces based on his extensive collection of vintage-photo postcards. It’s a photographic process the end result being a single archival gelatin print which is tinted with transparent photo oils. In this new series of prints at Polychrome he seems to have simplified things somewhat. Figures and background are skillfully fused in a way that looks somehow natural. The ‘painting by numbers’ references have become more subtle. There is a suggestion of narrative and the colours blend perfectly.

The prints are more than merely decorative. A hint of tension is created by sexual and ethnic contradictions. But anybody who’s offended by the various cultural appropriations is missing the point. It’s precisely this cultural misunderstanding that intrigues Blair. He likes the kitchyness of it. In Blair’s hands the kitsch is taken to the level of art. He may even be satirizing the myth-making process itself.
Each photographic print is an edition of one only. They are not duplicated, so each image is a unique signed and numbered print.

They are at Polychrome Gallery, 977 Fort Street until April 25th.

Philip Willey – April 2013

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