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

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

No comments: