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Artist discovers his voice in figures
Jack Balas finds niche in his presentation of the basic human form

By Mary Voelz Chandler

Friday, July 18, 2008

Once upon a time, Jack Balas taught writing, painted buffalo and made sculpture. But then someone asked him to teach a figure-drawing class, and Balas realized it was time to learn more about how to depict the human form. With bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees from Northern Illinois University, Balas took a community college class here in figure-drawing. He had majored in sculpture and taught himself to paint.

Five years later, Balas' work is all about the figure, demonstrated in two concurrent shows. "Tattoo Detour," which just opened at Robischon Gallery, includes watercolors, oils and drawings made while roaming the beach at Waikiki last summer. "We'll Be Seeing You" at MCA/Denver includes watercolors, photographs and images he shot of visitors to a space that is as much a studio as a gallery. "I started teaching figure-drawing, and the more I painted the figure, the more the figure was saying everything I wanted to say," Balas said, sitting in the gallery at Robischon, where it seemed as if a score of eyes was watching him from the walls. "It started taking over my life. They turned into figures that are a metaphor or allegory: These are Everyman."

The oils and watercolors at the gallery are derived from photos he took of strangers, then worked into scenic settings from drawings. The works appear candid but with a hint that more is going on than is visible on the surface. Young men roughhouse in the surf: Is it play, or a fight? A woman standing on the sand looks out to sea where her daughter plays, and a hand is drawn in above her: Is it protection, or a warning sign? In some instances Balas has included text, and tattoos are frequent. He has paired a couple of the paintings with old towels, and some of his figures sport halos. Balas said he once read commentary that called the figures in that type of painting "St. Beach Boy."

In the space at MCA earmarked for artists-in-residence, Balas has hung some of his older photographs and more watercolors. Then he set up a camera, invited people to come in with a favorite object, asked them to fill out a questionnaire and took their portraits. The works sprawl across the walls, linked by loops of paint.

The communal and interactive nature of his project is one reason MCA's artist-in-residence committee selected Balas' proposal, said museum director-curator Cydney Payton. "The emphasis on community is reflected in the coincidental timing of the museum show and the gallery show, encouraging the Denver community to see a wide range of a significant local artist's work," Payton said.

"When you look at those portraits, you're looking at all of human history," said Balas, 52. "I'm really sort of in awe of what people can accomplish." In the process, he has moved into new territory. "I've been painting beach boys for years, weightlifters, the beautiful guys. I turned it into total strangers." He's asked those who posed at MCA to return and write their thoughts on their images. The sense of the wistful runs through the images at MCA, and the evocative (even playful) at Robischon.

But that seems a natural byproduct of constantly drawing and photographing during a month on the beach. "It was like taking an everyday studio practice and putting it into a suitcase," Balas said. A return trip is planned for August, with sketchbook in hand. "I've never shown drawings before," said Balas, who lives in Berthoud. (His partner, Wes Hempel, also is a painter, and at times the two have collaborated on work that reflects their own styles.) "The themes are all tied together, people tied together in interesting images," Balas said. "The real revelation of the two shows is that the ideas are really portable."

The pluralistic aspect of Balas' work has attracted Robischon Gallery's Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran; they've been showing it since the late 1980s. "He was trained as a sculptor, taking photographs, and he started making paintings," Robischon said. "There's a certain romantic element in the work."

Chandlerm@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-2677

Jack Balas

* At MCA/Denver: "We'll Be Seeing You," watercolors, photographs, and images shot of visitors to Balas' project space, through Sept. 7; 1485 Delgany St.; 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org

* At Robischon Gallery: "Tattoo Detour," new paintings and drawings, with "Experiment," new photographs and video work by William Lamson, through Aug. 2; 1740 Wazee St.; 303-298-7788, robischongallery.com

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