Mahlon Blaine’s best work walked the razor's edge between the grotesque and beautiful. Though few facts of his life are verifiable, insomuch as anyone can gather, he lived in that no man’s land as well. A childhood accident left the artist – who was born in 1894 - blind in his left eye, an accident that contributes to the flattened perspective that marks his work. Though he alleged to have seen combat in World War I, the Army rarely drafted the half blind. A well-documented chronic injury to his left arm was unlikely to have come from a war wound. The plate in his head of which he boasted was probably fictional. Few photographs of the artist survive, but his self-portraits further the likely fake war hero persona.
In 1928, Blaine depicted himself as a typical, pipe-smoking veteran from the Lost Generation, an archetype that could be mistaken for a Hemingway dust jacket. After the war years, Blaine led a transient existence, toiling in Hollywood in the era of avant-garde silent films, and bouncing back and forth from the West Coast to New York City as his marriage to b-movie actress Duskal Blaine smoldered, exploded, and then reignited.
According to his own count, Blaine and his wife married and divorced no fewer than three times. But of course, Blaine’s count is not to be trusted. Though he was beloved by his friends for his poetic approach to life- his storytelling style was once compared to haiku, containing just a glimmer of meaning for the listener to deduce- his life is best pieced back together by tracking his career. For decades Blaine labored in the factory-like setting of the underground New York erotic literature scene. Working closely with Jack Brussel, the energetic antiquarian book dealer who published and sold erotica first at his Ortelius Book Shop and then at other Fourth Avenue locations, Blaine illustrated symbolist classics like Paul Verlaine’s Hashish and Incense, the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, fast-money low-market fetish pornographic booklets, and everything in between.
Blaine’s devotion to the macabre, the bizarre, and the sexual aspects of his art put the brakes on his commercial career. Though, patrons bought his original works during his lifetime, his cult status today emerged only through his rediscovery by sci-fi collectors and underground cartoonists. Still, Blaine’s admirers during his lifetime were fierce. Along with magician Jack Dunninger, who literally kept Blaine fed during lean times (often complaining about the artist's prodigious appetite), Blaine gathered fans in the elite of New York City's design world.
How much of Blaine’s obscurity in his lifetime came from his emergence during the depression years, when high end glossy work was scarce, and how much was due to a form of self-sabotage may never be entirely clear. Haunted by his own demons, Blaine spent the early 1940s under the psychiatric care of Greystone Hospital’s Dr. Archie Crandall. This period marks the only known break in Blaine’s working life. After ironically completing illustrations for a reissue of E. Thelmar’s 1909 autobiography of madness The Maniac, Blaine slipped out of public view, before returning to the New York art scene in the 1950s.
Grapefruit Moon Gallery