Dangerous Curves: Politics and Poetry in the Work of Blaise Tobia
by Joseph F. Gregory © 2003

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__ Tobia, however, does not abandon us to stray aimlessly among the world's inventory of everyday scenes and objects because he hinges each independently conceived and executed image to a second on the basis of a discovered set of relations between them. But these relations, upon which the meanings of these paired works depend, can be neither revealed nor authenticated through appeal to any traditional discourse because each match is unique; in fact, it cannot even be determined at the outset if they are relations of similarity, difference, or identity. The one thing that we can be certain of is that these individual pairings are not the tokens of a purely aesthetic interest in the urban landscape because in virtually every case they possess little affective potential. Each image, performing as an instrument of cultural archeology, documents a commonly overlooked artifact of the world around us and, by holding it up before us, transforms it into a curiosity deserving of a newly awakened analytical response. And when Tobia harnesses this response to a second by placing two images side-by-side, he sets the viewer upon a personal, open-ended path of active, back-and-forth comparative scrutiny in order to find relations that can meaningfully, if tentatively, bind them together.

__Consider the five pairs of images that comprise the series entitled Dangerous Curves. Each individual image in the group (which Tobia refers to as a "round robin") is paired with two of the others, so that each is potentially related, by extension, to all of the others: the photograph depicting an American strip-club sign "Dangerous Curves," for example, is paired in one case with the image of an Italian street corner containing a "dangerous curves" road sign and a crucifix, and in another instance with enraptured spectators aboard a glassbottom boat; but the Italian street corner is further combined with an image representing various Italian feminine cosmetic products (which implies a possible relevance, by extension, of the American strip-club sign to the image of Italian cosmetic products), and the image of the glassbottom boat is further paired with an image of an Italian fish market (which implies a possible relevance of the American strip-club sign to the Italian fish market), and finally, the fish market is paired with the image of Italian feminine cosmetic products (which suggests a possible relevance of the latter to the image of the glassbottom boat). The possible significance of each pair is thus impregnated with the possible significance of all the others forming a relational current of ideas, concerns, values, and practices that runs through two cultures.

__The most prominent thematic involvement of the Dangerous Curves series is the spectatorial objectification and commodification of the female body. This is most clearly announced in the image from which the entire series derives its name: the pairing which asks us to marry an image of an American strip-club sign to an image of an Italian road-sign and crucifix. The fact that the name of the strip-club is a lame pun on a "dangerous curves" road-sign obviously serves as the most prominent link between the two images . . .

. . . (the small passages of yellow ironically found in the sign and the divine radiance of Christ, as well as the structural fit of the two street scenes, however, also provides a formal link between the two). But the American urban wasteland containing the strip-club sign has no counterpart in the Italian image: the apparently ancient wall to which the crucifix is attached defines a cultural space whose deeply rooted identity stands in stark contrast to the nondescript and vacuous space found in the American scene (a non-space, to use Robert Smithson's term, a space in which there's no "there" there). In the Italian scene, the crucifix is implicitly joined to the perils of human life through its proximity to the road-sign, and suggests the pervasive cultural influence of the Church; but in the American scene, the placelessness of the site (which already seems partially erased by an entropic process of socio-economic decay) is implicitly conjoined to the faceless anonymity of the commodified female flesh put on display there. If the viewer were therefore to take this pair of images out of the broader context of the round robin to which it belongs, s/he might easily conclude that Tobia is privileging Italian culture on spiritual and moral grounds. . .

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