“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”
~ Francis Bacon
e are a species in perpetual pursuit of perfection. We are told that everything from how we entertain our guests to the way we manage our money can be turned into an artform. Surely “life as art” is an admirable, worthwhile goal, but life as in art without risk can be empty and meaningless. The pursuit of beauty and fineness certainly must also contain room for experimentation, for looking foolish, for on occasion making a loud and unceremonious splat as we hurl ourselves off the cliff into the icy waters below.
INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER BALKAN
Austin, Texas ~
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: How does your training in neuroscience play out for you now as a painter?
Jennifer Balkan: I am obsessed with brain science, specifically brain/behavior relationships. I love thinking about perception, am drawn to portraiture for this reason. An urge to illuminate what lies under one’s skin or state of mind. One of my favorite books is Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present. Psychology of mind drives my artwork.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You apply such a whimsical treatment to your nudes. We find ourselves tumbling into a vaudevillian-like, madcap terrain. Was this your response to how overly seriously we tend to take this genre? Are you attempting to break down a little of what feels to you like pretense and artificiality? Or is this a way of tipping your hat to the environment in which you grew up?
Jennifer Balkan: I really appreciate the framing of your question. I take my paint application very seriously but feel compelled to bring levity into the subject matter. Over the years, I have found myself playing with traditional portraiture: turning it a bit on its head, so to speak. I am inspired to create characters. They say all art is autobiographical. I believe there is no way one cannot put a bit of her or himself into the work.[quote]My portraits include some of who I am, who I wish I was and who I wish I wasn’t.[/quote]
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: The childlike quality of your subjects I also find fascinating. We get a sense that they are on to something we have all since forgotten. Can you tell me a little about this?
Jennifer Balkan: We are taught that we are supposed to leave our childhood behind us; yet many of us still have an affinity toward what was so important to us way back when. I find this to be visceral.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: As humor is often used as a powerful tool to re-balance power, would you say that you are making a feminist statement with your work? Or do you simply paint whatever gives you joy?
Jennifer Balkan: A little of both. The idea comes first, and then the paint completely takes over, so much so that the original idea may get lost for a while and then resurface later. I find that if I can lose myself in the process then I will be completely present, ultimately helping me to create a stronger work, even as it may end up being quite different from my original idea.
I have been painting women because it is what resonates with me. I find my strongest voice depicting women. I don’t call it feminist, per se. I get into my character through paint and that character has always been a woman. Though at times, my “characters” have been quirky still life objects or more recently land and waterscapes.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Can you tell me about your Moths Fly to Light series?
Jennifer Balkan: I began incorporating maps into my figure paintings because I found a strong connection between our biological systems and the infrastructure that a map represents, between veins and arteries and roads and rivers. I liked the idea of featuring the moth as the majestic winged creature, often overlooked by its more popular sister, the butterfly. The moth flies at night and is drawn to light. The moths here depict a dream; the sly pig mask hides the deceiving long nose. This vision symbolizes an ill-at-ease feeling in one’s skin.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: If you could design the adventure of your dreams, what would it look like?
Jennifer Balkan: What a cool question.[quote] When I dream, I am often fearless. I have the ability to magically traverse immense landmasses and soar over mountains. I am a thrill seeker of sorts but live the tame safe life of an oil painter. [/quote]My adventure would involve traveling the world in a circus of sorts ~ an utterly romantic notion of it ~ sustaining myself through performing: singing, dancing and playing the ukulele perhaps. I admire incredibly what performers are able to do.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And which is your favorite of all your works? Is there one you feel was particularly successful in giving voice to your dreams?
Jennifer Balkan: Gosh, it’s so tough to choose my favorite. Honestly, I’m constantly looking forward and finding that I can no longer sit with older works. Though there are a few. Mermaid is one that I feel particularly proud of. It is somewhat of a daydream….a yearning for a another life. This woman wishes she could be something she is not. I am still pleased when I look at this image. I can still feel the intensity of longing. I am pleased with the color harmony and paint quality of this one.
Jennifer Balkan: I recently started a new body of work I am calling, The Geography of Self, paintings that connects one’s sense of place to one’s identity and vision. The technique involved here is one in which I have to be quite thoughtful about where I lay paint down: it requires me to lay it down and take it away; to say what I need to say with as little as possible; to leave a conversation between the maps and the paint. It is my latest challenge and speaks to where my head has been lately.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What was your greatest take-away from working with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled? What did they teach you?
Jennifer Balkan: I learned so much about myself, how terribly impatient I am, how too concerned I am about what others think, and how hard I can be to please. As free as I am, these qualities constrain me. Some of the disabled people with whom I worked seemed freer than me in a lot of ways.
|Jennifer BALKAN grew up in New Jersey and began to draw at a very young age. She studied neuroscience in college and considered pursuing a path in psychology. After living in Boulder and Seattle, she moved to Austin. She attained her Ph.D. in 2001 after conducting anthropological fieldwork in Mexico. Although her experience in Mexico was rich, Jennifer longed for artistic creativity. In August of 2001, Jennifer spent a month in Spain, France, and Italy where she saw masterworks that would become her inspiration. She then threw herself into oil painting and now paints fervently. She writes “my time studying the human psyche both psychologically and sociologically must have left its imprint on my brain permanently…because I cannot seem to stray too far from it in my painting.”
Jennifer has taken art classes at Laguna Gloria Art School, the Austin Fine Arts School and at the Art Students League in Denver. Jennifer currently paints in her studio and in life painting groups. She has been teaching figure and portrait painting in oils to private groups of students since 2005. Her work has been exhibited across the United States and in Europe. Currently, she is showing work in the fifth annual juried international “Women Painting Women” show at the Principle Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina and at the “Pay It Forward” show at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia. You can find her work at www.jenniferbalkan.net and at Jennifer Balkan Art on Facebook.