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There is a buzz about Jonathan Blum right now. It’s a tiny buzz, to be sure, because when you spend eight years of your life painting nothing but foreheads, only a tiny buzz will come along if and when people notice. And even then they will still only talk about you as “the forehead guy.” But it’s a buzz, anyway. Blum knows it, and he likes it.
“Eight and a Half Years of Jonathan Blum’s Forehead Portraits” is the unsurprising title for his most surprising show, now on view at the Market 5 Gallery at Eastern Market until Feb. 12. It’s the painter’s 12th solo exhibition since 1988, which says one more thing about the buzz going on around Blum: It didn’t happen overnight.
“I just, like, wanted to make people laugh, and stuff,” he says of the forehead idea, while skittering about his Capitol Hill studio like a lab rat on speed. In the space of 60 seconds he’ll get up from his chair once or twice, flip-flop his legs three or four times, tug his forelock five or six times, and make maybe seven or eight ear-to-ear sweeps of his visual field. He will also use the expressions “like” and “man” and “yeah yeah yeah” roughly 92 times each.
“For my friends and people I knew, like, I just wanted to be funny and, like, make them smile.” He was still at work on a degree at Boston’s Emerson College in creative writing when he painted the first of his domes. “I was studying to be a playwright, and I was, like, totally into words, using words, the idea of words. So most of the early paintings, I would, like, put words in them. I would paint something, like “The Message Goes Here,’ right on the forehead.”
It was, he says unapologetically, a gimmick, and the early works in the show, which date from 1986 and 1987, sure look like it. The heads are crudely realized—big, cartoonish figures that betray their conception as part of a comic strip. But you can’t paint the human form—even just the top part of it—over and over for the better part of a decade, day in and day out, without investing it with some degree of humanity.
“Yeah yeah yeah, it became like a relationship, definitely,” Blum says of his particular painterly fascination. “It’s like, you don’t quit a relationship if everything’s good, you know? And everything’s good, I mean, it just feels right, I can’t just stop it now. It’s like what Picasso said, sometimes when you restrict yourself, you get free and powerful in all kinds of ways, man. I mean, I feel like I’m just now figuring out how to paint the eye.”
After taking his play-writing degree—his thesis was titled A Conversation in a Chinese Restaurant —Blum traveled around and kept perfecting his heads. He lived in Provincetown and New Orleans, studying and working at improving his renderings of the human coconut. He gradually lowered his frame, so that most or all of the nose would be included, as he came to understand that a fuller view of the head was needed to create a fully realized portrait. The cartoonish quality slowly gave way to some quite moving people portraits, including some superb collages of jazz musicians in the French Quarter. In one of the many paradoxes that seem to make up his character, however, as he got better at depicting human beings, Blum gained some notoriety for rendering a certain childish image.
“Bert from Sesame Street, man, people love that,” he gushes, beaming like a tyke on a spree at FAO Schwarz. “I dunno, I just started painting Berts, all these Berts, and it really caught on. I’ve got, like, so many people who love Bert.” He stretches out the word “love” for about two seconds. “They love him. I even carry around my little Bert with me.” And he pulls out, honest to God, a Bert hand-puppet. “Don’t buy these pictures,” he squeals in an imitation-Bert voice. “This guy’s exploiting me.”
It’s a terrific shtick, and one that works: Blum sells monoprints and T-shirts of his images at Eastern Market on Saturdays, and he says that Bert is, by far, his No. 1 seller. “People like to see me enjoying myself, they have, like, a good time, you know?” And are there a lot of people craving Bert’s forehead for their living-room walls? “Yeah, sure, man, yeah yeah yeah.”
But for all the clowning, Blum has some very serious artistic preoccupations. He went to Germany just before the reunification, and after a chance meeting with a gallery owner named André, Blum copped a one-man show during the week the Berlin Wall came crumbling down. He was, he says, the only artist showing in Berlin at the time with a Jewish name, and naturally, the media was all over him.
“Every paper was interviewing me,” he recalls, “It was crazy. I had a sold-out show, man, everything sold out. They bought everything I had. I even painted a Bert in front of the Berlin Wall. The Germans were buying totally out of guilt. It was incredible. On the night of the opening, there was some guy outside the gallery screaming, “Jew! Go away!’ And one of the guys at the opening went outside and got in a fight with him.” Blum shakes his head at the remembering. “It was a real scene.”
His experience in Berlin, he says, is what changed his sense of the importance of the artist’s enterprise. “After watching all these people, you know, frantically buying my work, I realized I had some responsibility—to them, and to me, too. I had to keep going, to be serious, to work at my art. It was then that I, like, realized I wanted to paint the way a shoemaker makes shoes—I wanted to perfect my craft.”
Blum floated to Prague on his raft of new Deutsche marks, hoping to find an ideal place to settle down to work, but it wasn’t until he made his way to Israel that he had the next major change in his vision. “I met a rabbi who, like, just totally inspired me. We would talk for hours and hours and hours, and he taught me, like, so much. Like about pleasure. He would always tell me there are deep pleasures and there are shallow pleasures. Maybe you see, like, a girl and you want to sleep with her. That’s a shallow pleasure. But the deep pleasure—that’s, like, contemplation, getting at, like, the essence of things. For the rabbi it was reading the Torah. And for me now, it’s my work, it’s the strange power I feel in being alone and working. Being alone can be so powerful.”
Blum naturally began painting the rabbi, and in doing so deepened and strengthened his art tremendously. His rabbi paintings are the strongest works he has done, light years ahead of the early cartoons and the clownish Berts. They are respectful and almost awe-filled, delicate without being precious. The eyes are downcast and closed. He has painted the head down to the lips, showing the beard and also the holy man’s contemplation. In both mood and palette, the rabbi paintings remind one strikingly of another Jewish mystic—Marc Chagall.
“I’m totally not, like, religious at all,” Blum says, but a menorah sits by his easel, and his small selection of books includes the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. Three of the most stunning rabbis—in red, gold, and blue, hanging from the wall like three wise men—seem to invest the space with an ethereal simplicity.
Until, of course, you notice some more of the Berts. “Look at these, man,” Blum says excitedly, showing me his latest efforts. Yup, dual portraits of the rabbi and Bert. The rabbi looks lost in prayer, while Bert stares idiotically out at the viewer. “It was almost like these guys had to meet,” he enthuses. “This is just, like, the natural development of things. This is where my art is going.”
Wherever that may be, toward the devotional or the kitschy, Jonathan Blum is under no illusions about the task he has set for himself. “The main thing is just to have some fun and some beauty, you know? We’re just here for a short time. And, like, I’m just a painter. Writers—you guys are important. The Berlin Wall didn’t fall because of paintings. It fell because of words. Writers change the world,” he says, savoring the observation with a smile. “I change living rooms.”