The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Nikki Moore, May 23, 2008, Arts

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.

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.

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