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Janitor-turned-artist shows he's a real card in exhibit on Florida

December 17, 1987|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

Six years of sweeping the sidewalks of Disneyland left George Blakely with certain opinions about tourists and the way they don't see things.

From those thoughts came a 2,000-square-foot exhibit that spreads across the entire floor and most of the walls of a high-ceilinged, Medieval-flavored room in the Administration Building of Whittier College. It is a sprawling, geometrically patterned collection of about 20,000 Florida postcards, all of them stereotypical, many of them tacky--and none of them, in Blakely's estimation, representing the reality of place sought by those who buy and send them.

"This is not Florida," declared Blakely recently as he stood on top, next to, and under a quilt-like array of brightly colored, repeating images of Florida.

There were scores and scores of postcard panels taped together, each a visual echo of a favored symbol of the Sunshine State. Alligators yawned toothily under the caption, "Well, shut my mouth." The pink of a gulf sunset shimmered behind hundreds of palm trees. Well endowed, bikini-clad young women struck provocative poses on the sand, their inviting smiles flashing with the regularity of a blinking neon light. Beaches, upside down and sideways, ringed the room, as did passion flowers, orange trees and tropical birds.

"There's no place like Florida in the world, in terms of how it is idealized . . . ," said Blakely, a curly headed, 36-year-old California native who has lived and taught in northern Florida since 1978.

His installation work, "The Florida Pictures Show," playfully derides the inability and unwillingness of the typical Florida visitor to see and experience more than a shallow, preconceived ideal of the state.

It is a failing Blakely also has seen in Europe, where he says American tourists are inclined to act like pigs, and in Disneyland, where he watched as visitors had to be led to the appropriate snapshot spot and told what to point their cameras at. Indeed, the pursuit of illusory images marks Southern California culture and to some extent American society as a whole, he says.

A part-time janitor at Disneyland in the early 1970s, Blakely worked his way through California State University, Fullerton, and says he got into graduate school on the strength of seven discarded Polaroid snapshots he picked up at Disneyland and transformed into an art project.

Although he has a master's degree in photography and teaches photography in the fine arts program at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Blakely considers himself a cut-and-paste man. "I take an idea and cut and paste."

He put the Florida Pictures Show together in 1984, and since then the work has been shown around the country. Only a portion of the exhibit is actually hanging (through Dec. 31) in the Mendenhall Gallery at Whittier College, since that was all Blakely thought he could fit in the room. Another 5,000 sunset, flamingo and bathing beauty postcards are plastered across the walls of a Dallas gallery.

Along with the postcard panels, Blakely has assembled postcard cutouts and sculptural arrangements for the show, which he usually opens in the company of tropical birds and bathing suits. A white cockatoo and several make-believe tourists were on hand last week for the artist's Whittier reception, when the background music ran to beach tunes and reggae.

Among Blakely's other works is a collage of 75,000 rejects from a photo processing machine and a three-dimensional photo sculpture. Most recently he has started cutting pictures and text out of encyclopedias and art history books and then mounting them. By separating the words from the pictures, he opens them to new and different interpretations.

From a distance, Blakely's postcard show seems a massive, nervous grid of loud colors. Up close, it too is open to different interpretations.

"You wouldn't believe this," proclaimed a student as she leaned over her bare feet to peer at the postcard designs taped together on the gallery floor. "This is so awesome."

Another Whittier student, Mike Swords, found the exhibit "neat," "weird" and "probably expensive."

"I'm sure he's definitely making a statement. But I don't know what it is. I have no idea," he said. But then, Swords is a freshman. "That's probably why I have no idea what he's trying to say."

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