Michelle Blade

Painter, San Francisco // October 2012
There is a creative aspect to how we encounter... existence. I love the broad array of attempts humans have made to encapsulate the mystery of being. This romantic quest is where a majority of my work stems from.

For close to a year Michelle has made a painting every single day. This rigorous daily practice is part of a project called 366 Days of the Apocalypse, in which she makes one new painting a day that’s inspired by and pays tribute to the apocalyptic prophecies surrounding 2012. Interestingly, the topic of an approaching apocalypse and the many ways in which it has been imagined has come up over and over again in recent conversations. In these unexpected discussions I’ve considered the grim landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s cataclysmic novel The Road, potential survival strategies in a world where zombies roam, and the plausibility of a collision between earth and a large asteroid. These talks have been casual (and in moments kind of wacky), but still full of curiosity, wonder, and veneration.

Ultimately, all of these scenarios share a concern for ‘the end’ and reveal our sense of awe regarding the world around us and our collective obsession with the unknown— which is very much what Michelle’s art is all about. The general intent of her work is not to warn of impending doom or capitalize on terror, but rather to elicit questions around our relationship to rituals and prophecies, the real and unreal, and our sense of imminent mortality. With 366 Days of the Apocalypse Michelle is exploring ideology and practices that attempt to grasp at the unknown, but in the daily act of making a new painting she’s also created her own very personal ritual to grapple with things she doesn’t understand.

Michelle is an eager reader and researcher (she works fulltime but spends lunch-breaks at the library) who has created a body of work that functions as a loose visual anthology of her inquiries and findings; her pieces obviously hint at particular fields of study, such as mysticism, existentialism, occultism, and eschatology. By looking to multiple disciplines and philosophies her work aims to visually synthesize various ways of understanding the world, but without offering up an answer. Instead her imagery is a starting point, a portal, a rabbit hole for a viewer to enter into at their own risk. If you are anything like me, as a viewer you will get lost in her small worlds of ink and paper that explode into bigger worlds in your brain— there are dark passageways, dead ends, signs you might not know, and uncertain intersections. Because much of the references embedded in Michelle’s work aren’t generally known and her aesthetic has a dream-like quality, potentially her pieces could come across as vague when in fact they are quite studied. This however, might be an asset— the indeterminate dreamy imagery acts as a lure, giving time for the heavier more deliberate aspect of her work to settle in.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
My work investigates ritual and prophecy, the real and unreal, and our collective yearning to connect with the unfamiliar. I believe that there is a creative aspect to how we encounter the mysteries of existence— how we acknowledge and make sense of things that are unknowable. I tend to not state truths in my work but rather embrace and highlight this uncertainty.

Visually my paintings and installations have colorful, bleeding surfaces that border on abstraction and simultaneously represent a transcendent space for totem-like characters and objects.

Your work is quite varied— what mediums do you work with? How do you go about choosing your materials?
My first love is painting, specifically with acrylic based inks. They are fluid and poetic and have a mysterious nature all their own. I paint on many surfaces including panel, paper and canvas but my favorite, for some time now, has been Dura-lar. It’s a plastic substrate that is milky and luminous. When light shines on it, or behind it, it practically glows. When I’m painting the ink has a separate kind of life than it does on paper or canvas. It’s very reactionary and therefor can seem more like collaboration at times. Gertrude Stein referred to this relationship as the “daily miracle”.

Rich in symbolism, your work often has a mystical bent; can you tell us about any direct influences you are working with?
Nature, social anthropology, theology, existentialism, alchemy, and eschatology are usually the starting points of inquiry. Each of these areas of study are collections of documented personal experience reflecting on states of consciousness and aspects of reality that are beyond normal human perceptions.

The world mysticism comes from the Greek work Mystikos, which means ‘an initiate’ or ‘a small group of people who share obscure knowledge.’ Highlighting this obscure knowledge is one of the goals of my practice.

I love the broad array of attempts humans have made to encapsulate the mystery of being through culture. This romantic quest is where a majority of my work stems from.

Some projects create obvious opportunities for inclusion for viewers, in particular your tapestry work, where a viewer has to stand on rugs painted on the floor– what prompted this? It really changes the way people inhabit gallery space, as I’m sure you intended.
One day, when I was working in my studio, a circular mylar painting that was taped high on my studio wall fell onto the floor. It had swirling colors with pinks, oranges and reds with salt crystals all throughout it. It was abstract but on the floor it looked like a portal and this excited me. I started to put more paintings on the floor; tapestry paintings and landscapes that people could walk on. Those works for me directly tapped into the more historic, bourgeois role paintings has had in society. I enjoy thisshift and see a lot of humor in it as well.

My favorite aspect of these works is that they are slowly being destroyed every time I exhibit them. The marks left behind by the gallery patrons’ change these pieces. A friend once referred to them as a Memento Mori, and I loved this comparison. In the destruction of these objects they become a new work altogether, reminding us of our own mortality.

The certainty of our mortality is a central theme in my work. I’m not looking at death in any kind of macabre way, but rather as a frame for my inquiry. It is a presence that quietly informs every experience. I find this cyclical process, and the creation of tension and release of energy within it, very interesting.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I’ve never thought about it directly in that way but I yes, I suppose it is. While it may not be a literal translation my work documents my obsessions, the experiences I question and the pathways I create.

You started Sight School in 2009, an alternative space that encourages dialogue about the connections between art and life. Can you tell us more about it?
The physical location of Sight school closed in January 2012. At the beginning of the project I wanted to completely erase the line between art and life. I ran the space, lived in the space and made work in the space. I curated monthly exhibitions and overlapping public programming to coincide with each show. It was a fantastic and all consuming project and at the end of the second year I decided I wanted that line between art and life back.

Certainly I gained a great deal of confidence from the experience. It was a leap of faith because I had no blue print– I simply wanted to immerse myself in the process and see what emerged. I’m proud of what came out of it and hope to resurrect the project in future in some form.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I currently work at the San Francisco Art institute assisting the President, Charles Desmarais. The history of the school and the presence of so many talented artists is extremely inspiring. Admittedly I would love to not work full time but I really enjoy my position. On the day to day I experience so many educational interjections- I learn a tremendous amount and I feel lucky for it.

Have you had to make sacrifices in order to live your life as an artist? (explain) Do you encounter misconceptions about that life or choice?
Being an artist is both a sacrifice and a life long gift. I am thankful to live the way I do, examining and experiencing life through thinking and making. But living as an artist is also extremely challenging. These frustrations are mainly political and difficult to ignore because they are rooted in finances and art world pedagogy.
I try to abide by the saying, quality not quantity.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
So many things. Lately I’ve been spending my lunch hours in the library. Walking the aisles feels like roulette. Everyday I encounter new territory to take back in to the studio.

I usually have a book or two that I read with my morning coffee. Right now those are The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 of Elizabeth Bishop and the Tao Te Ching. In the studio I’m currently reading Martin Duberman’s book Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community and Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture by Mira Schor.

On my record player I have obsessively been playing three new albums: Music From Saharan Cell Phones, Hypnotic Cajun and Obscure Zydeco, and Shirley Ann Lee’s Songs of Light.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m currently working on a painting project called The 366 Days of the Apocalypse where I make one painting a day for the entirety of 2012. This is the most challenging project I’ve ever done and I’m truly exhausted by and thrilled about what’s come out of it. The project has become about my relationship with art making. It’s a very honest project that highlights my day-to-day engagement with my practice. There are definite good days and bad and looking back at the different months I can see changes and growth occurring. Regardless of the outcome I put the work out in the world on a blog each day.

What do you think is the function of art in society? Do art or artists have a responsibility to do anything in particular?
There is a quote by Friedrich Nietzche that says “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” I like the sentiment; it reminds me that creating the truth of my existence is up to me. And that’s exactly what I’m doing and why I am an artist. I paint to make sense of the world and to simultaneously make the world my own.

Do you have a motto?
“Never sacrifice your dream”, and “Embrace change, it is our only constant.”

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I currently have an installation at RVCA on Fairfax in Los Angeles on view through January 2013.
In January I’m exhibiting the entire 366 Days of the Apocalypse project and new sculptural works at the
Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe.
In the spring I have a show coming up at Johansson Projects.
And currently I am doing a residency at Aurobora Press in SOMA.

To see more of Michelle’s work:

  • modeandthelike

    Michelle’s work is so eerie and beautiful… Looking at them all in total on her blog, it’s hard to choose a favorite. I want them all!

  • Nadia Patrian

    Lovely website! Michelle’s work is amazing! I really enjoy this interview I hope I see her work in Argentina some day! Please check out my publishing company this week I’ll write about this website!

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