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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Curation for the masses

This past week, the College enjoyed the presence of contemporary artist Scott Blake. On Tuesday, he gave a talk about his art involving barcodes, one work of which is currently on display in Faulconer Gallery as part of the “Stocked: Contemporary Art from the Grocery Aisles” exhibit. It is a series of 32 hand-painted barcodes he has titled “I am what I eat,” that are real barcodes from food that Blake really eats on a regular basis. The barcode aspect of his work began 15 years ago when he was experimenting with Roy Lichtenstein-style dots, and used rectangles instead. The result ended up resembling a barcode and he decided to run with this idea.

“I was always interested in icons and optical illusions and brain puzzles, so it just kind of fit into all that. It’s also just sort of ugly, and I like that. There’s so much you can read into it, put into it and do with it. There’s a hundred ways to skin a cat—I’m finding infinite ways to skin cats with barcodes,” Blake said.

Barcode art is now a huge part of his work and one of the things he is most known for.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to find anything that’s as important to me as a barcode. I sort of chose it on purpose, as an easily recognizable brand, but also sort of a joke of a brand—to be that barcode guy, it makes fun of branding, but at the same time it is a brand, so it’s perfect,” Blake said.

On Wednesday, Blake held a workshop involving another big aspect of his work—the Art-o-mat. Art-o-mat machines are retired cigarette vending machines that have been refurbished to sell pieces of five dollar artwork that are cigarette pack-sized. The Art-o-mat company has leased more than 100 machines across the country, including in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The nearest active machine is at the Whole Foods in Des Moines off University Ave.

Art-o-mat accepts work from absolutely anyone, and there is no fee to apply and no submissions deadlines. Art-o-mat currently works with about 400 contributing artists from 10 different countries. Revenue from the five dollar price is split among the artist, the host who pays lease on the machine the piece was bought from and the Art-o-mat company. Blake has been selling work through Art-o-mat for several years now, and he recently became the host of a vending machine in his town, Omaha, Neb. Art-o-mat is something he has never stopped being excited about.

“I feel like a born-again Christian when it comes to the Art-o-mat. I’m just so inspired, it’s such a great project,” Blake said. “No one’s getting rich, but your work will be at the Smithsonian … the Whitney. That’s on my resumé.”

Because the only requirement Art-o-mat makes of submissions are their cigarette pack dimensions—the piece must either be on a wooden block of a certain size and wrapped in acetate or fit inside a small cardboard box of a certain size—there is a lot of room for creativity and novelty. Among the pieces in Blake’s personal collection that he showed at the workshop were small oil paintings, wood turnings and photographs on the blocks, as well as pieces from inside boxes such as glasswork earrings, a humorous pin cushion with an image of Sarah Palin’s face and a box with the image of a camera on the front made into an actual pinhole camera with use instructions inside. For his own Art-o-mat work, Blake makes playing cards, barcode temporary tattoos and barcode flipbooks, such as one that starts with an image of Elvis Presley made of barcodes, with each page zooming in closer and closer until there is just the image of a single barcode. All of these are actual barcodes from Elvis’ CDs.

Blake expressed how much he has enjoyed his time at Grinnell this past week.

“I came to Omaha visiting someone and never left … [because] I love being able to work. The vibe of this college is the same idea—you come here to work, you come here to study. Something about the Midwest … there’s not a lot of distraction. The past week I’ve gotten a lot of good work done, I’ve been so inspired,” Blake said. “I’m excited that Grinnell is only three hours away. I have a feeling I’ll be collaborating with some professors, and who knows what? It seems like the beginning of something good, though.”

Artist Scott Blake's Art-o-mat collection. Photo by Eve Lyons-Berg.
Artist Scott Blake’s Art-o-mat collection. Photo by Eve Lyons-Berg.
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