Monday, August 12, 2013

art and the invisible; art and the interior life

"Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sondern macht sichtbar."

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible. - Paul Klee

It is one of the great ironies and paradoxes in life that art is the gateway and window into our interior world. Irony because art is considered superficial and non-essential. Paradox because it is visible and external, and speaks to that which is invisible and internal. It is part shell and part sign. It both holds and points the way.

Art is the ultimate expression of the very common expression that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. More irony and paradox perhaps. And like a Moses, for a variety of reasons, the artist can lead to water but may also not drink. Like a sin-eater, the artist performs a function in a society that ultimately will rarely be within their own grasp. But it doesn't have to be that way, and sometimes it isn't.

 Art is visible. That is part of its baggage. Can't get it through the eye of the needle. For this simple reason music has held a higher place for us and promises our salvation whether we appreciate it or not. Philosophers and even artists can agree on this. Music redeems us. 

But art comes second, albeit distant. And what of architecture? Well, it is useful and impossible to ignore.

Art can do things that music can't however, and that is the double edged sword. Art can be the visible sign of the invisible. It can be the window, the door, the gateway, and it can take us to so many places. 

It can transport us to the emotional, the spiritual, the psychological, the intellectual, even that which is philosophical, that which is moral, that which is ethical, but ultimately, and most importantly, that which is purely aesthetic, that which deals in the realm of form as an ideal, not just on a visible plane. 

It can speak to us of that invisible world all at once!

It can evoke it all, even sound! And abstract art can do it all in a way that is invisible in its own way by being non-representational. By being non-objective. By being unfettered by iconography and symbology and representation which holds it back, which is why abstract art has been considered the closest to music. 

Again, the double edge sword however, because that which gives abstract art a voice, a means, also mutes it. It can only point, suggest, even mime. It can't spell it out, say it outright. That which is not of concrete cannot be concrete. There is the rub.

So little in our life speaks of the interior life. We are superficial by design. We do things which represent us superficially. We invest our lives in these things. In our cars and houses and clothes and where we live, in our work, our education, our associations like communities, schools, churches, clubs and restaurants. We identify ourselves this way. And then to point more to our interior, by the books we read, the music we listen to, the people we connect with.

We turn to movies and television and religion for dialogue with our interior world, and if we are having trouble, trouble friends and family cannot help us with, we turn to therapy. If we are lucky we can make our exterior world connect to our interior selves, we can match it to our interior selves, so that what is on the outside is identical to what is on the inside.

And here again is what art can do. And modernism tried to clear this up. Modernism tried to clear the table. With a big arm it swept the table clean. For what? For starters to make sure that art wasn't something it wasn't, like politics or religion. Art for art's sake was about that clearing of the table. Freeing art from servitude. It made it self identical. 

So then the question is now the the table is clear, what do we put back on the table? The answer is all of it and none of it. And there you have post modernism. And the rub. You can't blink. The clear table invites corruption, to be commandeered by politics, religion, industry, even art itself. People get frustrated. They want art to serve. They can't let art be free. Right now politics seems to be muscling its righteous way into art the way religion did for centuries. This just might be even more frightening. Politics can wield a heavy sword.

Freedom is more precious. If we don't blink, art is there for us on the path of freedom. Ultimately art is uncanny in its wile; it slips any hold we try to make on it. Marble cannot hold it, frames cannot hold it, museums cannot hold it, governments and religion cannot hold it. Like the invisible, like love and truth and hope and faith and justice it goes its own way.

And because of that, artists are just as likely to avail themselves of it and all its richness as anyone. If they are free. If they haven't bought into the other stuff. If they aren't competing for the other stuff. Rivals for the other stuff. The fame and fortune. The symbols of fame and fortune. The poison of fame and fortune.

Which isn't to say they can't make it. They can. They just can't enjoy it. And that is a damned shame.

Addison Parks
Spring Hill

Thank you Paul Klee :)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

James Balla: Into the blue again

James Balla;"a stone at the end of a stick"(2012)oil on panel;24" x 24"

James Balla's show Into the blue again at the Provincetown Art Association Museum(PAAM) this summer of 2013 is a retrospective, and as such represents several different bodies of work as well as a transition in recent years from non-objective to objective imagery.

James Balla: Into the blue again

Through all of this the one constant that jumps out at the viewer is the square, the square painting surface, and this choice creates balance, which casts an aura of contemplative calm over the entire exhibition. An aura of contemplative calm that reveals at closer examination the other constant, the curious artist, the inexorable inquiry into and examination of form and meaning and materials, all against the undeniable backdrop of a little spit of land curling out into the awesome expanse of infinite sky and ocean.

James Balla: Into the blue again

Few artist have made the transition successfully from the void of abstraction back to more solid ground of figuration, as this move is generally viewed as a betrayal and neither "side" ends up embracing/trusting the change. This is silly of course, but such are the vagaries of politics, even in the arts. Commitment is everything.

James Balla: Into the blue again

Balla seems to have eluded this problem with remarkable agility, so much so that it wasn't a problem at all, but an evolution, like fish walking out onto dry land. In his own way he followed Guston's footsteps back out of the ooze. So much so that the objective imagery likewise came out the other side into something akin to a comic book reality.

James Balla established a certain tone in his earlier abstract work. The drip paintings(1996) for example had a smart and appropriately referential quality; he wasn't inventing or reinventing or even exploring this well trodden action painting technique, but instead appropriating it the way one might choose a plaid for a decorative motif. The result was a very successful and subtly jarring body of abstract work that behaved like nature; you didn't know if you should be drinking beer or wine in front of it.

James Balla monotypes

Before that the stripe monotypes(1994) pushed back and forth, up and down, against the idea of object vs space in a quiet struggle, quasi dialogue that questioned what is real in the spirit of Hans Hofmann, while all the time affirming a horizon over and over again.

The Source(1992); 48 x 48"; oil on canvas

The fractured irregular grids from 1992 that had created a cubist house of mirrors of almost Hitchcockian proportions eventually gave way to oil on linen canvasses of organic forms(Wings of Silence;1995)that seemed to fall from that grid, the same way that they had relaxed into tides of simple bands acting like nature's striations in the earlier mono types which proceeded them.

James Balla 

Soul in Flight((1997); 50 x 50"; asphaltum, shellac on linen

On the other hand the asphaltum paintings(1997) really did experiment with materials that could make something unpredictable happen. These paintings went somewhere with an emotional edge. They got under your skin. They were dark, scraping the outer reaches of mortality.

James Balla is always probing those relationships, flirting with the grid, luxuriating in pattern, paying attention to what paint and mark and color and texture can do. Paying attention to it all.

Untitled(2003); 15 x 15"; oil enamel on mylar

The body of work that followed the asphaltum canvasses channelled that energy back into a more grounded and even literal reference to the forces of nature. These works of oil enamel on mylar took that step onto dry land, but they remained as elusive as the abstractions. Elemental. Ethereal. Evocative. They took another step, another look, at the drama of nature unfolding all around him, swirling all around him, that cosmos of life and death of which we are all just a speck.

James Balla: Into the blue again

James Balla locates us squarely in those shoes. He invites us to lose ourselves the way he surrenders to its majesty. In the end this is the real constant in his work, and the square just represents at once the perfect symbol and vehicle of his universal vision.

The next body of work took the next logical step. These drawings of ovals, like stones or eggs, recall the abstract drawings Guston did in the early 60s to try to get his hands on something solid after the "Monet" spatial paintings he was doing along with Resnick and Mitchell in the 50s. Balla was nailing down the simplest of something real, concrete, in these elegant and disciplined realizations of solid ground.

James Balla; B-3(2009)oil on linen; 42" x 42"

Eventually he established that ground and it quite literally evolved into a figure ground which led to the flower power paintings of 2009. These fun and funny paintings are not the flip betrayal of pure and serious abstract painting any more than Guston's light bulb paintings were some dive off the deep end.

Balla is so steady and considered on his path, so profoundly intellectually, emotionally and spiritually dialed in that he spares us the insecure machinations of the ego that struts and flexes its muscles. These are generous paintings that after everything life throws at us gift us joy, gift us flowers, gift us flower power! They scatter a hypnotic random pattern of pinwheel, propellor flowers spinning into color and space. They set us soaring and free!

Ominous, alone...(2012);24 x 24"; oil paint on panel 

And then in 2012 came the clouds, the ultimate in soaring and free, and he was back Into the Blue Again. Clouds unmistakably cartoon-like in their character, unabashedly cartoon-like in their character. Again, without the least demonstration, he was brave again. He gave us something new again; he stuck out his neck again. And again he gifted us something cosmic to lift us up, to restore us.

Wings of Silence(1995) 30 x 30”; oil on linen

At the beginning of this exhibition James Balla welcomes us with a drawing, a self-portrait from the late 70's. It seems almost out of place, like why would he put it there? But as always, he had his reasons. Very good reasons. The self-portrait indeed welcomes us, but it also reminds us that all of this work is human, made by a thinking feeling human being, vulnerable like the rest of us. It says, here I am, this is what I do, this is what I see, this is what I love, this is what means something to me. Enjoy it. With a smile. With wonder.

James Balla: Into the blue again

That is the thing about this retrospective, the dots connect, the bodies of work create a sequence, they follow each other, segueing sensibly in every sense of the word. The puzzle that is this artist's work all fits together, all adds up, quietly, calmly, like a thoroughly uncanny master plan. Like a vision. Like an architect. Like a creator. Like a poet adding it all up. The song of life according to James Balla.

Addison Parks

James Balla: Into the blue again

James Balla: Into the blue again runs through August 11, 2013

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Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Make Art, Be Happy

"I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."
Georgia O'Keeffe

Wouldn't it be nice if being a free spirit didn't mean you were a flake, the same way that it would be nice if having a mind of your own was considered a good thing.

It is not worth dwelling on why being a free spirit in this world is a freakish thing, or why someone would complain that a child has a mind of their own like it is a bad thing. Still, why would anyone possibly deny a free spirit or mind of one's own to anyone?

But it's true. Furthermore, a free spirit, and this is really sad, is something we generally apply to a woman. "She was such a free spirit!" Read "flake!" Someone who hears voices or dances in the wind. But what you've really got is free and spirit connected, and what could be better than that? It sounds almost redundant. So what about men?

I fully understand that if you haven't got everyone on board, the pyramids don't get built. Maybe free spirits represent the decline of Western Civilization. Maybe more than maybe. Maybe it is like that state of mankind in that distant future in The Time Machine: people who don't care enough so save their own lives. But I don't think so. I think free spirits just might care more.

It would seem that the term artist is synonymous with free spirit. That this accounts for the freak factor where artists are concerned. But consider this: most artists learn how to invest in themselves, most artists pay for the privilege of being an artist: they rent studio space, they pay for expensive materials, they carve out time; and that should tell you something.

In a world where everyone else wants to spend other people's money, artists spend their own time and money doing something they believe in that makes life worth believing in. So for all those who think that artists are some kind of degenerate, free loading freaks, think again.

The sad fact is that the guilt and shame for doing something gratifying and worthwhile like making art, while others are filling a slot, undermines the creative commitment. Guilt and shame make us second guess ourselves; why should we be allowed to be free in a world that enslaves everyone?

Furthermore what follows in guilt and shame's wake is the pressure to succeed with either fame or fortune or both, to legitimize doing something so impractical and non-essential like making art, as if fame and fortune had anything to do with making art, and were a measure of anything but themselves.

Not unlike in A Beautiful Mind, if artists could leave fame and fortune sitting alone at the bar, and just be happy with making art, then they would preserve both their freedom and their spirit, and be truly happy!

As Kipling would suggest, treat those two imposters, success and failure, the same. Just make art and be happy!

Addison Parks

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