No holiday season is complete without a viewing of Home Alone, the classic film in which a young Macaulay Culkin is left to watch mob flicks by himself while his family heads to Paris for Christmas. Though few of us can boast of having fended off a couple of crooks from the family mansion, we all cherish our own childhood memories of times when distracted parents or inattentive babysitters allowed us to act on our imaginative impulses. Day Tripping, photographer Julie Blackmon’s stunning new show at the Robert Mann Gallery, captures the mischief and magic that brew when adult backs are momentarily turned.
In “Sharpie,” a golden-tressed toddler lies smiling on the floor after taking a black marker to a tufted Victorian sofa. A nearby chair is overturned, and various objects — a pillow, shoe, doll, and spilled Tic Tacs — litter the floor. In another image, “Picnic,” three babies cry in a vintage stroller parked precariously in a field. In the distance, four older children wander through the grass, the tallest of whom aims a BB gun at crows circling the clouds.
Adults seldom appear. When they do, they’re hidden behind the wide pages of a fashion magazine (as in “Patio”) or immersed in a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey (see “Book Club”). This theme of parental escape was threaded through Blackmon’s previous series, Domestic Vacations, which explored the small sanctuaries that can be found in the midst of suburban family mayhem.
Blackmon composes and stages her scenes with models. That use of artifice and digital manipulationfeeds the escapism in her work, and her allusions to art history enhance the painterly feel of the photographs. Most obviously, “Homegrown Food” is an homage to Balthus’s “La Rue.” The young girls in “Queen” and “Sharpie” recall princesses in a Velasquez court painting. In other images, like “Olive & Market Street” or “Patio,” the children seem strangely born from a cross-pollination of Blackmon’s contemporary, Loretta Lux, and Norman Rockwell.
Of course, the children aren’t really alone. The absent adult is present through Blackmon’s hand, as she elaborately stages each scene. There’s balance in the disorder of an image like “Sharpie” that reflects a distorted fantasy of childhood happiness and that agitates Blackmon’s most fantastical scenes. We are voyeurs with her as she gazes nostalgically at a stylized version of childhood.
Take, for instance, “Night Movie,” one of the exhibition’s most mesmerizing works, which shows a backyard viewing of The Sound of Music. On the screen, Captain von Trapp serenades his children, who, gathered around him, mirror the kids sprawled on blankets and pillows in the soft grass. The shadow of a boy standing in front of the projector falls on the film while part of the reel itself is played on his body, calling to mind the blurring of art and reality that Blackmon’s work relies on.
But there’s something unsettling in this blurring. While the von Trapp children listen carefully to their father, the kids in the yard are barely paying attention. The crows in “Picnic”look ominous, and the babies in the stroller are crying real tears. In “Fire,” the children gather around a campfire that looks as though it could easily spread, and the ones floating and swimming in “Stock Tank” appear as if they might actually be drowning. Is the boy in “Night Movie” placing himself into the film in an effort to find a family structure somehow lacking in Blackmon’s world?
As many of us discover in childhood, a world without adults can be scary — think of Lord of the Flies or even The Cat in the Hat. In Home Alone, we laugh when Kevin, after stealing a toothbrush, despairs at his criminal record; but it’s less funny when we remember the “wet bandits” are actually dangerous men and that Kevin is just a fragile little kid. It’s in this tension that Day Tripping is suspended, and through which Blackmon finds her success.
Julie Blackmon: Day Tripping is on view at Robert Mann Gallery (525 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 12.