Christie Blizard’s paintings have been on national television more than a dozen times in the past year. Millions of viewers in the US have seen her work on Good Morning America (GMA) and The Today Show, though they may not have realized that what they were seeing was contemporary painting. As part of her ongoing interest in devising alternative ways of making and displaying paintings, outside of conventional art contexts — from incorporating mud-wrestling into her process to spray-painting canvases strapped to her back while she takes hours-long walks — the San Antonio–based artist has been creating enigmatic text works to brandish in the backgrounds of the popular morning shows for the past year.
Blizard intends to continue the project through the end of the 2015, but in the meantime, a display of the paintings and footage of their brief TV appearances recently opened at the McNay Art Museum, which will host an artist talk on Thursday. Hyperallergic spoke to Blizard about the impetus for the project, her interactions with the droves of other sign wielders, and the responses she’s had from the programs’ staff and security.
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Benjamin Sutton: Where did the idea for this project come from? What attracted you to show your work in this kind of 21st-century national town square that is the backdrop of Good Morning America and The Today Show?
Christie Blizard: The project started in late June 2014. For several years, I had been doing various performances with paintings to address alternative frameworks, accessibility, and how paintings can be made through everyday activities such as walking. I gradually moved into more humorous and absurd actions to reframe painting, such as mud wrestling and skydiving (I jumped out of an airplane with a de Kooning drawing). In retrospect, I think I was building up a kind of fearlessness and objectiveness that this project needed. The idea came to me when I was having lunch with a friend in New York City, and I mentioned that I would love to see a television show in NYC, since I had never done that. I often watch these morning shows when I am visiting my parents in Indiana.
I was drawn to GMA and The Today Show as the background, mainly to get the greatest amount of exposure for the work. I was interested in the popularity of these morning shows and how tourists use them both as a means to communicate to people back home and as their 15 minutes of fame. These shows generously offer an opportunity for national exposure that I felt was interesting for the work I was doing. It is important for me to do work that exists outside traditional art institutions yet in pre-established contexts, such as holding signs on The Today Show. I grew up in the Midwest, so I had little exposure to art as a kid, and it is important for me to try to connect with people as efficiently and unassumingly as possible.
BS: How do you come up with the phrases you paint for GMA and Today?
CB: For the first round of signs that began last summer, I would ask friends on Facebook to send ideas. I then started to keep notes of phrases I overheard and read. I try to find sayings that are both personal and ambiguous. When I was younger, I wanted to be a poet. Some of the phrases seem very personal, such as “I feel like you know” and “without you I have no mirror,” but the “you” is never explicitly named, so I intend for the television viewers to feel that these messages could be for them somehow, even if just for a moment. Some of the phrases critique America and/or television, such as “Your deep shadow” and “Nothing’s wasted.” I do not intend for the critique to be overt, however. I look for sayings that can contain multiple levels of meaning, from personal to interrogative. I use black writing on a white ground so that it will be highly visible.
BS: What has been the response from other sign holders?
CB: Some of the other sign holders have been interested in my signs. Most of the time, however, they look a little disconcerted when I show them the sign. They usually ask me what it means, and I say that it is an art project and is meant to be ambiguous, etc. I try to remain somewhat vague. There is a camaraderie between us, mainly because we stand there together for four hours. I have been there when it was zero degrees and raining, so we commiserate on the weather. I am from Texas, and there are a lot of Texans who do this.
BS: Did you interact much with the people working on the shows, either the hosts or the tech crew?
CB: For Today, I have to go through security, so members of the security crew read everyone’s signs as we transition into the plaza. The crowd-warmer has talked to me several times. Mostly, I think they tend to ignore me. I try to find phrases that are non-threatening and open ended. I do not want to get the security guards or anyone into trouble. It is important for me to play by the rules as outlined on the website, mainly that the signs cannot be profane, political, or trying to sell something. At GMA there is no security or lines, so the process was different there. They did not like the “I am not a ghost” sign, however. During the live filming, a security guard tapped my shoulder and asked me to lower it. That was the last one I did in NYC. This sign was taken from Walt Whitman’s poem, “I am the Poet.” He writes: “I say the earth is not an echo / Nor man an apparition.”
BS: From a purely logistical perspective, being that you’re based in Texas, this seems like it must be a very time-consuming project; do you intend to continue doing it, and how do you go about it?
CB: I received a grant from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio in February to do about 25 appearances through 2015, so that has been very financially helpful to the project. I will continue it up through December of this year for sure, and hope to continue it until I am asked by the television shows not to participate any longer. I fly to NYC and stay in hostels during my trips. I have my parents record it live on their DVR system.
BS: Your work often involves video and performance, but with paintings or the process of painting as the focus; do you consider one of these your primary medium?
CB: Currently, I view myself as a painter foremost. Although it is difficult for me to make traditional paintings due to a suspicion of art institutions, this has helped me find a way for painting to exist in a context that I find challenging. I view my performances as “non-performances” in a way, and use their popularized scenarios to create new points of viewership. I view the paintings as both material evidence with the aura of the event and as catalysts for the performance, such as a painting equating to a held sign. I see this balance possibly shifting in the future with performance becoming more important.
BS: What makes you suspicious of art institutions? Does the fact of this project, which was motivated in part by a suspicion of art institutions, now being on view in an art institution pose a problem for you?
CB: In my opinion, the biggest issue for contemporary artists is the idea of branding and how this affects the meaning of art for the artist and how they in turn make decisions. I personally see a misalignment here and I know others see it differently, but the only way for me to come to terms with this is to try to find new frameworks for the viewership and participation of art. I have focused on painting, primarily because of its deep and complex relationship with art history, and I am fascinated by the idea of de-institutionalizing painting. I think that gesture itself can be meaningful.
I do not think it is possible to fully escape branding because, as I mentioned, when you are an artist there are certain things that must happen for the work to gain any kind of recognition, and this will inevitably involve art institutions. Duchamp already made the last move of quitting all together, but that does not seem an option for me.
BS: Many artists who have become frustrated with the stasis and safeness of art institutions seem to be turning to performance as a way of catching the public off guard or getting them out of their comfort zones, which can make for some really wonderful and unexpected encounters with contemporary art. Do you think there’s any danger of oversaturating these unexpected places and moments?
CB: Yes, there could be a danger of oversaturating these public venues as pop-up art sites, but I think television in particular has a lot to offer, and I think the poetics of how art can compete with television have not been fully investigated.
Christie Blizard will discuss her work at the McNay Art Museum (6000 North New Braunfels Avenue, San Antonio, Texas) on August 13 at 6:30pm. The installation of her Good Morning America and The Today Show paintings is on view through October 4.