Tow­ers And Tex­tures

Arabella - - ARTIST TO COLLECT - writ­ten by Gary Michael Dault

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.

Bill­board Art

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 The artist is rep­re­sented by th­ese ex­cep­tional gal­leries: Cald­well Sny­der Gallery San Fran­cisco, CA www.cald­well­sny­ 415.392.2299 Cald­well Sny­der Gallery St. He­lena, CA www.cald­well­sny­ 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"

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