Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Comedian Jerry Sienfeld characterized his successful 1990’s television sitcom Sienfeld, as being a show about nothing. Visual artist Blake Cook’s new video exhibit Empty Gestures, running now through April 16 at Cleveland State University’s The Galleries at CSU, says Cook, takes a similar approach.
Born out of an Internet video sketch series begun in 2014, Cook developed and honed the extreme close-up camera angles that are the hallmark of Empty Gestures. That, and the mundane, yet captivatingly bizarre actions that take place in 20 videos using random household objects such as Cook rubbing a hunk of raw beef into the cover of former President Jimmy Carter’s book “A Full Life,” or him voyeuristically massaging with his fingers random Flickr portrait images of men and woman displayed on a computer monitor.
Cook says he doesn’t use the term “empty gestures” in a way that is negative but rather in the positive, highlighting the beauty in such gestures that he says capture “those sorts of moments in life we take for granted or don’t think about are maybe the most beautiful things.”
At first glance one might think these videos as possibly the work of someone who has a tenuous relationship with sanity ─ Norma Desmond, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” kind of lunacy from Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard ─ but the work falls in line with Cook’s prior works’ pension for perspective, texture, spatial relationships and the accumulation and manipulation of materials. Those have included front door-sized abstract paintings, dozens of miniature theater seats made out of cardboard, various sculptures, and exhibits using hundreds of drop-ceiling sized plaster panels and flattened cardboard boxes.
The 55-year-old Assistant Professor of Art at Cuyahoga Community College’s Eastern Campus and former Tri-C ad campaign poster boy, has a BFA in painting from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in painting and sculpture from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His work has been shown at several galleries including Youngstown State University’s McDonough Museum of Art where he participated in REA+CH, an artist in residence program that provided opportunities for abused, neglected and dependent children to work directly with artists.
The intimate exhibit, some 2-hours of video compositions, is installed in a small, darkened room within the gallery where videos with titles such as “Araki Yellow” (where Cook rubs a stick of butter on the pages of a book of sexually-charged nude photos by Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki) and “Jimmy Carter Celery Root” (where a dirty celery root, like the aforementioned meat, is rubbed onto pages from Carter’s book) are shown on an iPad Pro connected to a pair of JBL powered speakers.
Other videos include nonsensical scribblings with a pencil (complete with scratching noises of graphite on paper), crude cartoon pencil drawings of a dog and cat that are quickly erased in fast motion producing an eraser noise that sounds like a jackhammer, and various garden-themed videos including “Twinkie,” in which Cook pushes a Hostess Twinkie through dirt and grass, and an unnerving composition where Cook devours a dirty celery root that up close has an alien quality to it.
In these objects Cook says he sees wonderful textural qualities outside their prescribed function that he feels gets overlooked.
Cook used a Panasonic LUMIX GH4 camera and Adobe’s Premiere Pro video editing and Audition audio editing software to create the videos which he says are mostly improvised like Jazz music.
With the web series, Cook says he initially liked the idea of viewer accessibility and the ability to watch the videos almost anywhere, such as on mobile devices, but now he says he prefers the controlled environment of a gallery space to best show off the work’s visual and acoustic aesthetics. Having experienced both delivery methods, Cook is spot on. The movie theater-like experience of the gallery exhibit charges the senses in a way viewing it on a standard computer or mobile device can’t.
No doubt some will find the exhibit an acquired taste. Acquiring it is best done by watching portions, if not all, of the videos in exhibit. While each individual video may be meaningless, like the exhibit’s title implies, taken as a whole however, Cook feels meaning develops. He also admits to inventing his own fantastical narratives to go along with each video such as a relationship between the 91-year-old Jimmy Carter, who has battled cancer, and the young, seemingly exploited Japanese model in Araki’s photo book, each somehow being brought together in this exhibit by Cook to save one another.
As with any work of art it is hard for a viewer not to relate what they experience to the world around them. Empty Gestures with its motion, process, chaos, light, color and juxtaposition of often disparate objects, provides a myriad of sounds and images for viewers to let their imaginations run wild creating narratives and meaning for themselves.
Blake Cook’s Empty Gestures is on display March 10 – April 16, 2016. Cleveland State University’s The Galleries at CSU, 1307 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, Ohio. Gallery Hours: Tuesday–Thursday, Noon – 5:00p.m., Closed Sunday and Monday. Free admission. (216) 687-2103 or csuohio.edu/artgallery.