Jennifer Balkan: 'Hidden Meaning'

Balkan's paintings celebrate and challenge traditional portraiture, presenting something of an identity peekaboo

<i>Moths Fly to the Light I</i>
Moths Fly to the Light I

Jennifer Balkan: 'Hidden Meaning'

Wally Workman Gallery, through May 28

Who am I? Often this is a question asked by a bleak, soul-searching self, hands on the counter, looking straight into the bathroom mirror ... as if somehow that reflected image is going to tell us something, give us a road map, give us an identity. In some psychoanalytic circles, particularly those following the work of Jacques Lacan, the mirror has more to do with masking than revealing. According to Lacan's Mirror Stage theory, from the moment a child first recognizes a mirror image as himself/herself, when that little wobbly legged "it" becomes "me," the child begins a lifelong contingent project of identity creation and maintenance centered on that mirror image. Over time, we associate what we see with who we are, and over the years, we embellish that association with clothing, hairstyles, gestures, smiles, scars, and wrinkles. Each day we take that mirror image and project it to others. The depth of our commitment to that visage is most visible as we cringe when cultures present us with ways of being that veil those faces, those images, and, ultimately, we assume, those identities.

<i>Are You Kidding Me</i>
Are You Kidding Me

Painting has played a mirror role for centuries through the medium of portraiture. Monarchs had their likenesses made to extend the face of power, and sweethearts exchanged small pocket portraits in order to keep each other close. As Jennifer Balkan's newest work on exhibition at Wally Workman Gallery celebrates and challenges traditional portraiture, her paintings present something of an identity peekaboo. Whether nude bodies hold up comedic masks or fully costumed portrait sitters hide behind bright-red clown noses, Balkan's subjects seem both to hide and to come alive in painted masquerade. In her beautiful painterly style, with shades of pink, peach, and tan set against nearly glowing backgrounds of the palest sky blue, Balkan's visible brush strokes both give and create mirroring images of her subjects bathed in light. There is a play of animality in many of the masks worn by Balkan's models, and it is easy (habitual?) to read those plastic faces for signs of the "selves" they mask. In three glowing works titled Moths Fly to the Light I, II, and III, Balkan's symbolism reaches a crescendo in layer upon layer of maps, painted flesh, masks, and moths.

Yet whether boldly masquerading or not, for all they reveal of bodies, these pieces leave you feeling, perhaps like philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did, that the painter's models may be all mask, all veil, only appearance without an essential substance. And while we can accept this in painting – in fact, have come to know that painting is always only a surface project – Balkan's exploration of masking may ask us to look back at ourselves with the same beautiful and accepting skepticism.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Arts Reviews
Book Review: <i>Truckload of Art: The Life and Work of Terry Allen</i>
Book Review: Truckload of Art: The Life and Work of Terry Allen
New authorized biography vividly exhumes the artist’s West Texas world

Doug Freeman, April 19, 2024

Theatre Review: The Baron’s Men Presents <i>Romeo and Juliet</i>
Theatre Review: The Baron’s Men Presents Romeo and Juliet
The Curtain Theatre’s BYOB outdoor production is a magical night out

Cat McCarrey, April 19, 2024

More by Nikki Moore
In Dreams
In Dreams
Camera in hand, D'Ette Cole makes images that bridge the gap between night and day

July 18, 2008

Arts Review
Lance Letscher: 'Industry and Design'
Throughout his latest group of collages, Letscher is always exploring how we work through ideas and emotions

June 13, 2008


Jennifer Balkan: 'Hidden Meaning', Wally Workman Gallery

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle