By Maureen Murphy

It is not the monumental, once-in-a-lifetime events that Jerry Bleem is interested in. It is not the preciousness of a $15 tube of paint that is the source of his inspiration. No, what excites Jerry Bleem is the everyday. During a conversation we had over tea he stated, “I really believe that truth lies in the ordinary. ... If there is anything ... that is true, it’s in the day in and day out.”

It is this love of the ordinary that is the foundation of Bleem’s work. “I want to take these materials that are part of that day-in and day-out experience and hold them up to a viewership, and also hold them up to myself, so that they can really be seen in a way that examines their potential for truth,” said Bleem.

Bleem does ask the viewer to look at his materials in a new light. Many of the pieces displayed in his show Incremental Meditations, currently at the Chicago Cultural Center, remove these mundane materials from their original context and bring them to the world of high art. Installed within a cluster of stapled sculptures, one of his organically shaped structures consists of fish scales held together by staples. Taken out of their fish context, the scales can’t easily be identified as such without the help of the label placard.

However, Bleem’s quest for truth in ordinary materials wasn’t without its challenges. Although he never received a BFA, Bleem pursued his interest in the arts as a graduate student at SAIC. “My first year was pretty much a remedial year. Because even though the school at that time didn’t require a BFA, they expected you to know what a BFA student should know. ... Just having the vocabulary to talk about art I completely lacked,” Bleem explained.

It was during this time of frustration that Bleem started stapling. He said, “I was in my second semester of grad school and was coming up pretty dry and felt pretty overwhelmed by realizing all I didn’t know. I was in the studio fooling around and had some construction paper I tore up in bits and stapled. ... It was just this certainly directionless gesture.”

Since then, Bleem has explored different materials in his body of stapled work. Guinness beer cans, found film negatives and found plastic have all been saved from the trash can and stapled into sculptures. Because such media can’t be bought at Utrecht, Bleem relies on collecting to gather the materials for these works. And, Bleem said, the nature of collecting is very important to his work:

“Part of it that’s really important to me that’s not obvious in the work, but somehow is the energy for my work, is the relationship [the collecting process] requires I have with people — that I ask them to save things they would otherwise throw out.”

His four-panel piece, “The Beginning of Wisdom,” is comprised of canceled stamps that Bleem collected over several years. Bleem explained his attraction toward stamps, “I’ve always been drawn to stamps for this little bit of print that goes through the world, like this little traveler. ... I love the way this little print would take communication between people. I like ... the marks of cancellation, or the marks of wear and tear.”

Some of the stamps were found while cleaning out the room of a person who had died at a Franciscan Friary in St. Louis. Bleem was fascinated by the fact that someone had carefully collected these stamps, all worthless because they were canceled, and accumulated mass quantities of them for no clear reason.

Bleem is currently working on a project that relies on collecting fingernail and toenail clippings from other people. Some of those asked to help collect said that they weren’t able to do it. As Bleem explained, “For so many people [nails are] a disgusting part of them. They’re fine once they’re attached to them ... but once separated from us it becomes this awful sort of material.”

As one can see from Incremental Meditations, Bleem is not afraid of what some would consider to be gross. Several of the pieces in his show feature termite wings, lady bugs and beetles. The work seems inspired by the challenge of making this so-called gross material beautiful — and indeed it does cause the viewer to observe this material as one would observe the paint strokes in an Impressionist painting.

One of the problems Bleem has encountered while working with such unorthodox materials is the archival questions that galleries and collectors have. However, Bleem is more interested in the work as it stands now, and he said, “I do like playing around with the issues of what’s really mysterious or what’s unknowable. ... We’re a people who quest for certainty, and that certainty is very hard to come by.”

Bleem approaches his artwork contemplatively. He said, “I have to be attentive to what’s in front of me. ... And I would argue, at least for me, that my artistic practice, my studio work, is about being present to the moment. It’s about seeing what’s in front of you now, not letting the stupid thing I said in class the day before, the person whose feelings I hurt because of a stupid joke affect me, or trying to let the anxiety of what’s happening the next day distract me from the present moment, because that’s the reality I’m given in which this kind of perception can only happen. It’s not going to be based on the future or the past.”

Borrowing the term “contemplate” from classical religion, Bleem believes that both those who devote themselves to religion and those who devote themselves to art seek truth through this contemplative examination. Bleem explained, “I think those groups try to get hold of what is mysterious in life and hold it up for examination. Although it might be done ironically or it might be done with great seriousness, I think both groups are about trying to figure about what is, what does it mean, where am I going to devote myself, what’s worthy of my devotion.”