A Dynamic Balancing of Freedoms and Constraints
|Untitled, 2019, acrylic on panel
|"Tower Queen" 2018
|Untitled, 2018, from the Tower Series
|"Tower King" 2018, from the Recursion Collision series
By Tom Wachunas
“…The physical limits of building with clay and the utter freedom of manipulating paint can each be maddening at times – but can also be revelatory…” - John Balistreri
EXHIBIT: DRAFTING Dimensions – Contemporary Midwest Ceramics / On view through July 21, 2019 at The Canton Museum of Art (CMA), 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666 / Viewing hours: Monday – Closed; Tuesday - Thursday - 10am-8pm; Friday - Saturday - 10am-5pm; Sunday - 1pm-5pm /
Here’s a wonderfully engaging CMA exhibition that warrants separate commentaries on the participating ceramic artists – Malcolm Mobuto Smith, Future Retrieval (studio collaboration of Guy Michael Davis and Kate Parker), John Balistreri, Peter Christian Johnson, and Lesley Baker. So I’m beginning with the works by John Balistreri.
In the statement posted with his exhibit, Balistreri is careful to point out that the connection between his paintings and ceramic sculptures is symbiotic rather than mimetic, which is to say that the paintings and sculptures are not to be taken as strictly copying each other. The processes involved in manipulating one medium can inspire formal resolutions or new compositional outcomes in the other. Call it a synergistic interaction of ideations. This give-and-take relationship between methods and materials is a studio practice which allows Balistreri to, in his words, “…reach a broader understanding of structural abstraction.”
That said, an untitled diptych painting from 2010 (the first image shown above) does look as if it may have been an embryonic exploration which inspired clay sculptures from several years later that we see exhibited here. All those loosely painted, dripping shapes, floating in a liquid plane of indeterminate depth, seem to be in the process of congealing into something anthropomorphic, architectonic, or both.
Another recent (2019) untitled acrylic painting is a much more aggressive and complex hybrid of regular and irregular shapes and marks, painted with a visceral, at times frenetic energy. These abstract configurations coexist in a sort of matrix that in some ways suggests clusters of synapses or neurons spread across a membranous field. There’s evidence of underpainting covered up by changed procedures and content. Some elements are discrete presences, placed atop or adjacent to each other in variable degrees of emphasis across the picture plane. Other elements are less defined, like remnants of structural systems fading away into ambiguous spatial relationships.
Yet there is a sense of unity in this vortex of painterly gestures, hovering as they do somewhere between intrusion and integration – a sustained equilibrium between compression and expansion, between arrivals and departures. Balistreri’s paintings aren’t pictures or diagrams of a static reality. They’re codified histories of multiple decisions that can constantly alter the look of the painting as it’s being made. It’s in the very nature of abstract painting, then, to not only tolerate but also encourage such freedoms.
That’s not the case with building big clay pieces such as those shown here. There are physical constraints to be considered. Balistreri’s freestanding sculptures are vertical, totemic structures that could be called figurative architecture. The aesthetic character of these forms is an uncanny conflation of the modern and ancient. They’re built from the ground up, requiring a base stable enough to support the elements placed above it. As he tells us in his statement, “…Generally the lower part of a large sculpture cannot be completely reworked and become something else after hundreds of pounds of material have been added…”
Walking around the sculptures activates the space around them enough to better perceive the kindred dynamic at work in both the sculptures and the paintings. It’s that aforementioned balance between compression and expansion. The sheer diversity of visual vocabulary in the paintings is sometimes echoed in the fascinating organic protrusions and recesses that comprise the sculptures, and vice versa.
Viewing the exhibit is to enter a complementary relationship. Or think of it as joining an intriguing conversation between mediums that inform, rather than merely imitate, each other.