Towers And Textures
Given the lyrical delicacy of his sweeping cityscapes and the chromatic freshness of his still life paintings, you’d scarcely imagine artist Paul Balmer lunging at his paintings-in-progress with power tools. With charcoal, pencils, pigment and brushes, certainly – but a drill sander? Although the subtle graphic effects, the frayed, poetic atmospheres that characterize Balmer’s large, sensuous paintings are contemplative, and a bit otherworldly, his behaviour in the studio is surprisingly workaday and fearless. Look at the artists he admires: Antoni Tapies, Jean-michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly. All spontaneous, urgent mark-makers in thrall to the expressive moment. Balmer says he admires "any artist who is scribbling, scratching and scraping, and if they have a slight ‘primitive’ bent, that helps." He venerates Picasso (yet, seems almost reluctant to admit it) because of his fearless transitions from high classical calm to convulsive distortion and pictorial mayhem. He adds that "all kids’ drawings also fit into this hallowed primitive category." But one mustn’t misunderstand this romantic "primitive bent" idea. The fact is, no serious artist scribbles, scratches and scrapes at a sheet of
paper or a canvas without having first undergone a long, demanding apprenticeship in procedural skill and then discovered one’s personal place in the cultural landscape.
The Painter’s Backpack: Patent Pending
Balmer, who is now 51 years old, is himself the grateful recipient of a solid academic art education. Born in Durban, South Africa, he moved with his family to Australia when he was 18, first studying fine art at university and then switching to graphic design, finally becoming a freelance illustrator in Sydney. After eight years in Sydney, he decided to join his sister in America, where he landed a full-time job – his first – at an advertising agency in Boston. Balmer was 26. Having gradually discovered that "the 9-5 corporate lifestyle" was not for him, he set off again, this time joined by a painter friend, to backpack around Europe. It seems to have been a journey of serious art exploration – evidenced by the two wanderers having fashioned a backpack especially designed to hold 12 painted wooden panels, each of them still wet with oil. "We should have patented the idea," Balmer wrote later. It was the archetypal artists’ Grand Tour: they visited France (mostly Paris), Italy (mostly Florence), then back to Cezanne-country (Aix en Provence). When he ran out of money, as a young, peripatetic artist always does, Balmer landed a teaching job in Switzerland at the prestigious Art Centre Europe. Here, he began to paint his
impressive series of "Neo-classical" paintings – for which he foregrounded details of masterpieces of European architecture he had encountered on his travels. Partial views, exquisitely chosen and edited, of archways, domes, facades and the relief sculptures encrusted thereon. These consummately rendered paintings were highly praised, and when an exhibition of them was mounted at the Arden Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, it quickly sold out. "And thus," Balmer notes, "a painting career began."
Reach for the Sky
It would have been tempting to continue making these very enjoyable, historical, architectural etudes, but having now decided to "tackle New York City as a theme," he would need, as he explains it, "a different style to capture the textures and all the action of the place." This is where the power tools come in. And the artist’s rigorous training in graphic design. Now, instead of merely depicting what he has seen, he begins to construct what he will paint. He explains, "I started flattening the perspective and adding all the elements in one scene (bridges, boats, buildings), and the work began to get larger and more textured." It’s both the texturing and the delicious colour that make his beautiful paintings of New York and Boston seem so intimate, despite their noble scale, and downright touchable, like hallucinatory, rock candy skyscrapers from dreams. Ever since 9/11, the skyscraper has been a subject fraught with anxiety, tinctured by fearful, upsetting memories. The skyscraper, these days, is an object of challenge and provocation. But not Balmer’s. His skyscrapers are simply delightful elements of pure composition, figures
against grounds; the recipients of an innocent, subtle palette and the loci of memorable, eye-snagging surface treatments. For example, in his recent Brooklyn to Manhattan (2016) the vista Balmer provides is purely scenic, not sociological or geographical. The city’s towers – threaded on a graphically wispy Brooklyn Bridge stretching across the canvas – poke up into the picture from below, like meringues atop an Ile Flottante; a confectionary medley of creams, greys, light yellows, pale oranges. Balmer delights in the rich banding of the towers, and the charmingly imprecise notation of his rows of windows. The buildings bulge slightly, bending a bit, leaning a bit, in a way that is not architecturally post-modern or deconstructivist but rather the personal stuff of memory and rumination. Balmer’s buildings are clearly of his own claiming and are about introspection, not description. Equally delightful are his almost fairy-tale treatments of the backgrounds against which his skyscrapers are placed. In Brooklyn to Manhattan, the sea is a robust lead-blue, punctuated everywhere by dozens of little shark-fin triangles of white. Sailboats plying the waters of the harbour. You can almost hear the snap of their sails in the salty breeze. In one of the lovely Boston paintings, Boston Commons (2015), the sea has been replaced by golden parkland. What was once stern blue ocean is now sun-filled meadowland, little puffy trees having replaced the tossing sailboats. But whether it’s a vista of New York or San Francisco, all of Balmer’s paintings trade in the same arresting innocence. A palpable grace which
is directly traceable to the artist’s irresistible use of colour – pastels, mostly – and to his employment of painterly texture, which slows the eye and then engages and supports reverie.
Like much that is good in art, Balmer’s texturing techniques came about accidentally. He notes, "Some time ago I had painted an awful painting. So, to get rid of it entirely, I decided to sand it away with a drill sander. The sanding turned the horror show into something very interesting; layers of colour showed through in different unexpected areas, and the work had some serious texture. The look was not unlike a billboard where the posters have been peeled off and bits of the old poster shows through. This accident turned out to be what I do to all my paintings. And, now, with the still lifes, I sand the paintings even when the oil is wet, which blends colours together in unexpected ways." It is this deliberate distressing of his painting surfaces that generates much of the engaging intimacy in Balmer’s cityscapes and still life paintings. Strangely, his power-tool onslaughts do not barbarize the paintings but, rather, make them subtle and complex. Now they have surfaces you can touch, or at least feel invited to do so. This tactility is only enhanced by the artist sometimes having marble dust and wall compounds folded into the mix. None of his resultant towers are overwhelming in their giganticism. Instead, they seem more like stage sets or building toys available for our full, even perhaps, childlike participation. Balmer’s big buildings, roughly-hewn though they may be,
offer charm as an alternative to grandeur. His still life paintings are dazzling arrays of fruits, vessels, bottles of wine, picnic baskets and brilliantly-hued cloths hospitably spread out upon the ground. Just as his skyscrapers are often banded, his still life objects, too, are often spread out for display on striped fabrics. Balmer does like stripes (see his Striped Cloth and Outdoor Gathering, both from 2015). He also likes the visual excitement of heterogeneous objects juxtaposed: pears on a plate, grapes in a bowl, a wheel of Brie, a pitcher, a block of butter, even salt and pepper shakers. His nature morte objects – foods and implements – are themselves disparate, like the skyscrapers, but ultimately held together securely in a binding relationship as parts of a composition, as objects in a painted field. The objects are presented, like the skyscrapers, against colourfully painted backgrounds – the sea or parkland for the cityscapes; accommodating carpets and tablecloths for the still lifes. Most of the still lifes are located on a picture-plane tipped up towards the viewer, so that we appear always to be looking down upon them. Balmer’s fruits and wine jugs are clearly diagrammatic rather than realistic. Indeed, the still lifes are quite abstracted (you won’t find any spots on these apples, or streaks of mould in his painted cheeses). The painter has noted that, for him, a successful painting is one that sensuously represents a scene but is not compelled to explain it. His paintings, he insists, "are closer to abstraction than realism." He says he never works from an actual still life, because he is seeking to avoid having things "look too real." But, of course, it’s just when things refuse to look too real that their power to persuade us of
their presence comes to the fore. What Balmer’s paintings offer is not architecturally-realized skyscrapers or persuasively edible fruits and potable wines. Rather, they offer us the ‘idea’ of these experiences. Which is way more powerful. View more of Paul Balmer’s textured masterpieces at www.paulbalmer.com The artist is represented by these exceptional galleries: Caldwell Snyder Gallery San Francisco, CA www.caldwellsnyder.com 415.392.2299 Caldwell Snyder Gallery St. Helena, CA www.caldwellsnyder.com 707.200.5050
previous spread, artist portrait
above, East River, oil on canvas, 35" x 85"
left, Chrysler Shadow, oil on canvas, 80" x 60" above, Above the Chaos, oil on canvas, 64" x 64"
Bay & Bridges, oil on canvas, 64" x 64"
Night in Grey, oil on canvas, 64" x 64"
previous spread, Red Table, oil on canvas, 60" x 80" above, Seaside Blue, oil on wood panel, 48" x 48"
Still Life Black & White, oil on canvas, 40" x 40"
Tuscan Morning, oil on canvas, 48" x 48"