Timothy Blum Essay by Robin Rice

Timothy Blum Essay by Robin Rice

Timothy Blum
Spring 2004 Fellow

Like many of Tim Blum’s works, The Midas Machine is partly a self-portrait. Unlike other self-referential pieces by the Spring 2004 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America in Wheaton Village, it includes a lead figure cast directly from the artist. The entire sculpture is a functional, though cumbersome, electro-plating machine based on one constructed by Lord Volta in the 1700’s and it reflects Blum’s interest in early science. Typically, it is a commentary on art-making, myth-making and history.

Seated in an old-fashioned bathtub, the Midas figure of Blum is naked except for a large cowboy hat, one he wears in homage to the German artist Joseph Beuys’s ubiquitous fedora. The lead figure is encased with gold plating to the waist, suggesting the level of imaginary water. Behind the tub are three tall glass cylinders (Yes, there is glass in Blum’s work, though not always) filled with pennies and nickles. Blum used the interaction of metal with salt water to generate electrical energy. The coins refer to the wealth of the mythic King Midas who was disastrously granted his wish that his touch would turn everything to gold. Every artist is on some level an alchemist wannabe. He needs to turn all materials to gold: both the gold of transformative art and the metaphorical gold that makes life in a capitalist society possible. Sometimes the results of the Midas gift are not entirely benign.

Blum frankly acknowledges that he wants “to make magic,” adding, “I’ve made two functioning X-ray machines,” an amazing accomplishment of do-it-yourself science. These are implanted in the 9 foot wide Dr. T.J. Eckelburg, a powerful evocation of the ominous, all-seeing optician’s sign in The Great Gatsby. The eyes in Blum’s Eckelburg are represented three-dimensionally behind wooden glasses frames, with eyelashes cast in lead and eyes of real glass. Behind the hollow pupils of these eyes are transformers and X-ray machines.

Blum astonishes with his audacity and technical inventiveness: a camel covered with tobacco leaves, Wonder Bread in an embroidered silk wraper, Domino sugar cast in gold, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer cast in a wax, parafin and human (beer belly) fat obtained from an uncle who is a plastic surgeon. He’s even put real cocaine inside an embroidered silk packet. Glass Air Jordans are displayed on a piece of asphalt from the street. “Details are beautiful. Doing something well is challenging. I’m always trying to change materials up, change up format, challenge myself.”

“To hand make a mass-produced item is so stupid it’s smart. It’s a transformation. It doesn’t work if it’s not real size. It convinces you. In the surreal world, anything happens but there’s a logic to it. I use a very Americanized vocabulary so nothing gets lost in translation.” Like his mentor, Tony Cragg, “My work changes imagery all the time and my work changes materials all the time. I’m always in research mode.”

Blum’s interest in glass is partly related to its use throughout the history of science. At CGCA he worked on casting the figure of a black man as a bulb for a black light. He spent “weeks and weeks of work” perfecting the orignal sculpture. “It’s as close to a figure in a museum as my butt can get.”

Then there are the household items. He’s casting an ice cube tray in cobalt glass with clear cubes and making various commercial containers from glass. A Heinz catsup bottle will hold blood. A Joy diswashing liquid bottle will hold urine. A glass bar of Dove soap will be filled with semen. “My work,” he acknowledges, “is not always user friendly; it’s vulgar; it’s life.”