Robert Blanchon didn’t want his picture taken. Not even from behind. He declined to pose with his back to the camera while facing 14 drawings of himself that he had hung in Randolph Street Gallery for a group exhibition called “Telling . . . Stories.”
Technically, the drawings aren’t self-portraits; over a two-month period in 1991 Blanchon hired an assortment of semiskilled portrait artists he encountered on the streets of New York City to draw him. He paid them between $10 and $25 per portrait and priced the complete set, Untitled (Portrait), at $2,000.
The project originated with an invitation to submit work to the Drawing Center, a gallery in New York City. “I don’t have any drawing skills myself,” says Blanchon, who got his bachelor’s degree in 1988–and his master’s in 1990–from the School of the Art Institute. So he hired the sidewalk artists. “I did it in a very controlled and scientific manner. I tried my hardest not to give any idea of my personality. It looks like they’re plugging me into ideas of what they thought I was.” Apparently none of them figured out their subject was a conceptual artist.
Toying with his identity is Blanchon’s current preoccupation. “I’m kind of a control freak,” admits Blanchon, who further describes himself as “independently poor.” At last November’s Fluxus-themed show at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400, he put up eight photos of himself, taken between the ages of 17 and 28, along with a grid of gay personal ads. “You couldn’t tell if I was this farm boy from Oklahoma, a toilet whore, or a straight-acting Upper East Side professional,” he says.
At the Anonymous Museum, a short-lived 1992 project held by a band of Chicago artists, he placed a dozen framed photos of himself on the floor, which he captioned with the names of the previously anonymous board of directors. For a series of mock Mapplethorpe images, Blanchon posed like one of Mapplethorpe’s favorite models. A few years ago he staged a hoax celebrating the anniversary of conceptualism: a phony symposium to which movers and shakers in the Chicago art scene were invited.
Blanchon plays other disinformation games for political impact. For an ACT-UP poster he acquired an official glossy of Mayor Daley and reworked it to critique the city’s ad campaign for AIDS awareness. He also designed Art Against AIDS subway signs that borrowed the typeface and layout of Gap clothing ads that were up at the same time.
Now living in New York, Blanchon undertakes a new photo project each summer and bikes around the city to shoot it. In the summer of 1992 his quarry was the crotches and buttocks of figures honored in public monuments. “I got a police citation for being vulgar” after climbing underneath a horse sculpture in front of the Plaza Hotel to photograph its genitals.
He spent another summer documenting public bathrooms used for gay sex. Before shooting, he’d ask any occupants to leave. “There’s a certain sadness about the end of the sexual revolution,” Blanchon notes. “I once spent two hours in a toilet in Bloomingdale’s waiting for someone to look through the glory hole.”
Blanchon is guest editor for next fall’s issue of the literary and arts magazine Whitewalls. He chose the theme (“A Wretch Like Me”) and asked contributors–who will be fully identified–to tell him something they’ve never told anyone before. “It has to be true,” he states. “No fiction will be allowed.” There’s also no fact checker. So far, entries range from someone’s method for toenail cleaning to a tale of homicide.
Blanchon and nine other artists bare their souls through photos, installations, and other work in “Telling . . . Stories,” on exhibit through April 23 at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday noon to 6. Admission is free. Call 666-7737.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.