PAINTING RETROSPECTIVE IN BATON ROUGE
by Dr. Sara Hollis
Although painter Gustave Blache III spends most of his time in New York City, his heart lies in fond memories of his development as an artist in New Orleans. Here he attended elementary school, high school, and NOCCA. In New Orleans, he has several works in the permanent collection of the McKenna Museum. He also had a major exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art of his series on Mrs. Leah Chase. This spring his work is available to fans, friends, and family at an important retrospective of his work titled, “A Work in Process: Paintings by Gustave Blache III”, in Baton Rouge at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum. The exhibition will continue at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum in the Main Gallery through June 4 and is made possible in part by Richard C. Colton, Jr.
Recently, Blache spoke with The New Orleans Tribune about the exhibition and his feelings about being honored with such a major show in his home state.
Hollis: How many of your series are represented by paintings in your Baton Rouge Exhibition?
Blache: A little over 60 I think. The curator of LASM, Elizabeth Weinstein, did an amazing job locating and contacting the owners who were so gracious in lending so many works to the exhibition.
Hollis: Which of the paintings in the exhibition do you think best represent the particular series they are part of?
Blache: I think Curtain Cleaners Sweeping or Adjusting Curtain are two that come to mind that stand out in that series. I like the action and the voyeuristic point of view that is shared in both pieces. The title piece, The Mop Makers, is one of my favorites in the whole exhibition. I think the sense of the factory and the challenges of the environment for workers who are seeing impaired are all captured in that one piece. There are plenty others I really like; but if I were forced to pick only one that represents that series in totality, I think that would be it for me. When it comes to Leah, take your pick . . . that’s a tough one. I think dining room scenes are great, but I’m more prone to the kitchen scenes because that is what the story was about. It was about Leah behind the scenes and my intent was to share with the public all the hard work she does before everyone arrives for lunch. Off the top of my head, Stirring Pot (Kitchen View), and Leah Seated Red Coat I really like but usually when I ask 20 people which one they like I get 20 different answers. Very tough. Love that series. Of the newest series SPAC, I really can’t pick. Each piece represents a different part of the restoration process and that makes it so tough. The Canvas Scrapers comes to mind, The Canvas Stretchers, Celia with Blade (Standing on Footstool), Simon Examining Moran, I mean I could go on and on. Which ones do you like? Overall, I think the exhibition is one I hope the public come out to see and support. Feel free to ask any follow-up questions.
Hollis: What does it mean to you to have such a major overview of your painting career back in Louisiana?
Blache: I’m truly honored to have a show of this nature bestowed upon me at such an early age (I was 39 when the exhibition opened). Louisiana, I felt, needed to be the first landing spot for this exhibition. Its home. Even though the series highlighted in the exhibition aren’t all Louisianan subjects, it was essential for me that the show be here so that I can share this moment with those who watched and supported my career from its earliest stages—from elementary school at Coghill through McMain and NOCCA. It’s great for me to see all of these works hung together, 20 years of how I’ve interpreted people and labor is an unbelievable experience for me to witness. I feel just as much as a spectator looking at these paintings as those who are seeing them for the first time. It’s fun, introspective, and a learning experience for me, all at the same time. I try to take myself, in my own memory, to where and what I was thinking about while executing these paintings. Documenting labor has been my focus for the past 20 years and having that on display just reinforces why I’ve chosen that subject to document. I believe in what we all have to offer each other through our service for one another. I think Elizabeth did an amazing job in sharing that story in a way that made it accessible to the public.
Hollis: Do you ever go back and add more paintings to a series you have finished? Or once you show a series do you consider it finished?
Blache: Actually, that’s an interesting question…I’m not sure if anyone has asked me that before. But to ‘answer your question, no I don’t. When a series is finished it’s finished. These series are usually such a heavy lift that once it’s done I’m truly spent. Plus I like that there is a finality to the subject…it forces me to condense the story to its most essential syrup instead of a sauce. It’s more concentrated that way. Most of the series I’ve completed I could do 50 paintings on but I find it to be more digestible between 10 and 20. Also I find it to me more of a challenge. The last series entitled SPAC (Simon Parkes Art Conservation), which is about Art Conservation took almost 9 years to complete, Leah took almost 4…so much time and thought goes into constructing each series that it’s best to not leave it open ending. I prefer a movie version over the daytime soap version if you know what I mean.
Hollis: What are you working on now?
Blache: Right now we’re working on my monograph, by the same title as the show at LASM, A Work in Process. We have some amazing contributors, Elizabeth Weinstein, the curator from the current exhibition at LASM, along with two curators from the Smithsonian NPG and NMAAHC respectively, Tuliza Fleming and Dorothy Moss, along with Holly McCullough, former American curator of the Telfair Museum and now Arlington Arts Center Executive Director. The Artist Book Foundation is publishing it, and we’re aiming for release this fall. We’ve been working on this for the last three or four years of so. The monograph will cover my career to this point, even in greater detail than the current exhibition. The writers are even helping me see my work in a different light. I love what they all bring to the table. I’m very excited about it. Also, I’m always trying use all avenues to make the conversation surrounding art and collecting it more accessible.
Hollis: Can you share with your fans what you are planning for the future?
Blache: You know, I really don’t know what’s next. Some of what I mentioned earlier is on the immediate horizon, but in terms of long-term future, I’m not sure. I’m definitely contemplating retiring. That may seem like a bit of a surprise, but I’m somewhere between that or taking some time off before going into another series.
Hollis: What does it mean to you to be included in the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History? Have you visited the museum yet?
Blache: I’m so honored to have two works in the permanent collection of the NMAAHC. I don’t think you think about it as a kid or even as an adult regarding the possibility of something like that happening. We were able to visit the museum a week before it opened to the public and I was just astonished with how much the museum accumulated and how much they were able to have on display. Luckily I had one of the two on view while I was there. To be included in such a historic moment for our country, with so many memorable artifacts there and to be a part of that, omg, it’s tough to put into words. It was surreal—from meeting Dr. Lonnie Bunch III to sitting in the Brooklyn Dodgers stadium seats in the Jackie Robinson video room—everything. The whole thing was surreal. It was like knowing you’re experiencing history in real time as you’re walking into the museum. Everyone should visit this amazing institution during their lifetime to see firsthand how far we’ve come as a people and how far we’ve come as a country. It is truly a life changing experience.
Dr. Sara Hollis joined the faculty at Southern University at New Orleans in 1973. She is a professor in the MA in museum studies Program.