Dianna Blell: Modern Romance

By Lynn McLanahan

Dionne Blell's exhibition Works from "Various Fabulous Monsters" and "Charmed Heads and Urban Cupids" opens September 7 at the Houston Center for Photography.
As someone who looks at photographs all the time it's refreshing to be stunned by a photograph, I was first exposed to Dianne Blell's work in an article in “Newsweek” that included a reproduction of her "Love Fleeing Slavery.' Quite simply, I was dazzled. The image is, to use Blell's own word, "loaded."
My next exposure to Dianne Blell was via the telephone to ask if I could see more of her work. When I hung up. I found myself stunned again. We had talked about Jupiter, makeup artists, warring gods, painted rocks, giants, caryatids and the kind of noses they need to have, and on and on. I was exhausted yet inspired by Blell's energy and enthusiasm. The world depicted in Blell's large Cibachrome prints is a world of dreams, ancient myths, modern angst, and whimsy. By recreating legends and photo graphing them, Blell's viewers are faced with the dilemma of reality vs. unreality. They are photo­graphs, and what we see was actually there when she photo­graphed the scene. Yet. as you step back and look again, her work looks less like what we have come to expect from photo­graphs and more like what we have come to expect from paintings (old paintings), both m sub ject and presentation. Noticeable blur and dust and scratch marks quickly curtail ones flight into fancy back into the reality of the fabricated photograph, but not without some fun on the way. A methodical progression has led to these elaborate, splashy, and enticingly romantic works.
Born in Los Angeles, Blell received her B.F.A. and M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art In­stitute. Her artistic endeavors included theatrical gallery instal­lations, slide projections, video pieces and billboards, all of which fall into her conceptual scheme of performance photography" Her work began to focus more and more on fashion. Blell loves fashion, has a background in it and had done some modeling and worked in the industry in retail outlets. She was drawn to incor­porate fashion into her work because of the "tremendous impact ' she feels it has on women. Borrowing clothes from fashion designers such as Oscar de la Renta. Mary McFadden, Nipon, and Fortuny, Blell set off on a series which she was to en­title Charmed Heads and Urban Cupids.
Blell herself served as the model in carefully staged fashion dramas that, in their poses and settings, contain art historical references. Hair and makeup specialists as well as fashion photographers were used, and all participants are credited when the work is exhibited or repro­duced. The first picture jn "Young Woman Overtaken by Storm," a series of three photographs, shows Blell, jewelled and gowned by Mary McFadden, standing next to a supportive tree, arms raised a La 19th century romantic painter Burne-Jones. Both Blell and tree are ravaged by nature as a roar­ing storm carries the eye to the final image where we find that the tree fared much better than Blell, her hair, her makeup, or her gown. Fleeting fashion is again alluded to in "Future Perfect' as Blell. guised as a cupid male Gaspi maillot, gets her toes wet in the river surrounding Three Mile Island.
This series of socio-political fashion narratives led to Blell's most recent series of works, which she calls Fabulous Monsters. She maintained her interest in the presence of the female form to evoke various re­sponses (social, erotic, graphic), but decided to remove herself as the model. 'I just didn't want to be in front of the camera anymore; it was emotionally wrench-ing and I was tired of it. I was also continuously surprised by the photographs. Every time, no matter how much control I exerted in installing the colors, the styles, and the shapes, when I looked at the photograph. I would be dumbfounded, which was fair in a way." She began to learn more about the camera and decided that she wanted to be the one holding it, "becoming very greedy about the camera itself.'
She rented a paper mache stage prop- an urn -which she had stumbled upon and it became her first model" in a new series. "I practiced on the urns first of all and they repre­sented uninvolvement for me. They were cool, they were ob­jects, they didn't complain, they didn't move, I could do them myself, and I just took this one thing and did it a lot: underex­posed it, overexposed it, splashed it with color, and gels, and what­ever; it was my guinea pig. But it was like a very loaded vessel for me, sort of mythological and religious, sort of like human life in a way: it had corrosion, wear, and age. and it was also fabricated as a theatrical prop to look like something it really wasn't. It really was a false front almost, and it represented the trick of photography that can give things a numinous essence, a very in­credible power and attraction that maybe in person they might not have."
Blell then took her interest in fashion a step further and began to explore how people through the ages have presented them­selves in social and economic ways pictorially, both m paintings commissioned by kings and noble­men as well as genre works which depicted the common man. "Holy cards were my first real introduction to pictorial manifestations of things and I think they had a great influence on me even though I'm dealing with it in a more pagan nature."
The coffee table in Blell’s lower Manhattan loft is buried under books on mythology and art his­tory (the only exception being a small dish of licorice) and it is "the whimsy of legends" that has monopolized her artistic energies recently. Inspired by classical in­terpretations of the more obscure and eccentric myths in paintings. Blell “re-presents" the myth in her own unique and capricious manner.
A certain myth may brew in Blell's mind for years before it is actually realized as a photograph. This may seem an inordinate amount of time, but in Blell's case, she has to first create the legend before she can re present it. Building the set takes anywhere from a few months to a year. Blell and her assistant. Gretchen Zimmer. build the rocks, walls, columns, furniture, and while they may call in Blell's youthful street graffiti gang to help paint rocks and walls, Blell and Zimmer attend to the details such as designs in the friezes and the faces of the cupids.
Next come the models and one only has to look through Blell's enormous file of applicants for the role of the male in The Origin of Drawing" (cover) and the Polaroid sketches" of each one in the setting to see what Blell has to go through to find someone who "looks" the part. Once she has the models, she moves on to arranging a compo­sition, altering the set if neces­sary, making costumes, and re­searching period hairdos. The stacks and stacks of Polaroids attest to the painstaking process of subtle changes in arrangement, lighting, makeup, color, gesture, camera position, flame height, starry backgrounds, drapery, cupids flying altitude, and so on.
Unlike some photographers who shun commercial techniques. Blell reads up on any tricks of the trade that can help her stage her legend.
The actual shoot takes all day with the models, stand-ins, her assistant, makeup and hair stylists, and special effects specialists pre­sent when necessary, all trying to synchronize their efforts and work together despite the slow large format process and the element of chance introduced by certain of the special effects such as fog. fire, and front screen projection. Blell has her oversized Ciba-chromes (color prints made from transparencies) printed and she mounts them on Masonite. Then, in this age when the Museum of Modern Art is throwing out the clunky baroque frames that have always adorned many of their paintings, Blell is putting hers on. The smaller pieces have gilt frames dripping with ornament while the larger pieces have rough-sanded wood frames in gold, silver, and as critic Brook Adams pointed out in Art in America, "the color of a bar­becued potato chip."
"Hollywood or art?" you may ask. Recreating a myth or legend and photographing it is not new to the history of photography. O.G. Rejlander was draping his models in classical garb in the l850’s in England, challenging no­tions about the relationship between painting and the limitations of the new kid on the block, photography, just as Re|lander chose to make his tour de force "The Two Ways of Life" an un­usually large print for 1857 (31'xl6"), Blell's Cibachromes are enormous, even by 1984 stand­ards (up to 53 "x63 "). 'It has to do with trying to get the photograph to look more like a painting: I'm very interested in altering the perception of the large photographic image with textures, and there is the curios­ity of making something and hav­ing it look like something else. Blell's photographs do look more like painting" because she is taking existing paintings that illustrate the legends she is drawn to, and recreating them in her loft with sets, props, and models. As for altering the texture of the photograph, Blell is currently investigating the possibility of embossing and adding gilt to the surface.
So why doesn't she just paint?
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Because Blell's work, is about photography. Despite the fact that we are bombarded with set­up photographic images every day, particularly in advertising, we still tend to want to believe that what we see in photographs is real. And, with photography. Blell can bring her zany world to life. 'The photograph can provide a reality that doesn't exist at all; how else could I make cupids fly jn the air? The legend is recre­ated, it's really happening. It's different from painting. Painting removes it: painting comes direct­ly from the mind onto the canvas and therefore it’s still fictitious, it’s liquid.'1
The Polaroid 20"x24" camera and Polaroid's program of bringing prominent contemporary photog­raphers into their studios to use their instantaneous and luscious process has brought studio set-up photography back into the lime­light in the past decade. Yet, in these times when the photo­graphic pendulum seems to be swinging away from the set-up and the decorative back to the more socio-politically relevant, Blell's work comes as a blast of fresh air. For the moment, her feet are firmly planted m the studio and she is restricting her subject matter to that dream world we all like to escape to once in a while.
How deep can one delve into her work for content? There are allusions to feminist issues, but to be safe, one shouldn't try to go too deep in that direction; rather, plunge into her unabashedly fab­ricated fantasies and relish her ability to infuse each one with "romance, wit, and poetry."