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Catalog Essay for
"Artist and catalogue contributor Jack Balas captures the boom mood in his poetic essay about being a laborer for hire. His description of driving across the country as an art shipper in the 80's expresses the increasing vulnerability of the artist through a portrait of the landscape. Looking in the rearview mirror suggests that the 90's represented the point of no return for the contemporary art world."
Cydney Payton, Executive Director / Chief Curator, MoCA Denver.
THE FRONT RANGE AND THE RANGE OF IDENTITY
(An Essay by Jack Balas)
In the beginning was the land, and the land was with truck, and the truck was with art, and I drove the art truck across the land sometimes for forty days but more often for twenty or thirty and stayed in motels.
The land was a cathedral for me since the religion was art, and I was trying to paint the cathedral in my off-time. I was seeing a lot of it in those mid-80's on my route between San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and New York, which did not bring me through Colorado except once or twice, until 1985 when I moved to Boulder and all of a sudden saw even more of the land, since I kept my job and was now flying back to the west coast every month to pick up my truck.
Driving, looking at art, meeting artists, gallerists, curators and collectors, stopping the truck every here and there to take photos (I tried painting in those motel rooms, but usually I was too tired to do anything except watch TV), writing descriptions of places I was driving through, usually in some restaurant or out walking afterwards. Trying to remain an artist during those weeks at the same time that I was a coast-to-coast trucker dealing with ports of entry, driver's logs, one-trip permits, weigh stations, other truckers ("You're haulin' what?") and the Interstate Commerce Commission. Enter a gallery, though, or a studio or collector's home and some wand was waved, presto-change-o now I am the insider being invited to see the collection, have a glass of wine, take a catalog with me.
Boulder seemed the perfect antidote to L.A.: walkable, seasons, and a group of artists who did not all live 20 miles from each other and for whom I would not need (for driving reasons) an appointment to visit -- Garrison Roots, John Wilson, Chuck Forsman, Jim Johnson, Jerry Kunkel and later Toni Rosato and Scott Chamberlin -- running the gamut from sculpture to painting and back, but concerned also with installation, photo, words and later computers, reflecting my own jumble of interests as a painter, photographer and writer (did I mention my MFA in sculpture?)
While they were in Boulder teaching at the CU art department, I was in town for the heaven of it still with my prima donna truck job, flying back and forth to L.A. or Chicago or New York to pick up a truck, and in that flying gaining a completely new perspective on the landscape, following on some flights the roads down there with an atlas opened on my lap, observing days' worth of driving in a matter of hours. I would come home with a broad view of the physical world -- and the art world too -- beyond the immediate region, and that's where my focus stayed (as did that of my friends) while calling Colorado home.
The land was my muse (did I say cathedral?), but no more about Colorado necessarily than you might say of Chuck Forsman's dams and development, or of Bruce Nauman and New Mexico, or Vernon Fisher and Texas or even Ed Ruscha and L.A. Rather, place was a springboard or an opportunity, not unlike James Turrell in Flagstaff or Andrea Zittel now in the increasingly active (and documented) Mojave.
Alas, when the job came to an end, I too got a job at CU-Boulder, but for me it was teaching freshman composition in the University Writing Program, having shown the higher-ups some of those on-the-road descriptions that were published in WhiteWalls, an artists' journal out of Chicago (not a truckers' magazine). Learning about teaching (and way too much about homework, i.e. reading student papers all weekend), my own work took a decidedly literary bent. I had been incorporating words and phrases into it since college, taking cues from Ruscha as well as H. C. Westermann, but my partner, Wes Hempel, who was a writer and had only begun to paint after we met, helped me discover how to turn my own truck job descriptions into fiction. It all blossomed in 1989 when I was in a group show at the (now) Miami Art Museum in a space adjacent to Vernon Fisher's retrospective. The idea of a third voice being the love child of paint and words made me mine the landscape deeper now with personal asides: what can I add to a depiction of geography that has been around so much longer than I?
A turning point came to my idiosyncratic world with politics, however. While the Berlin Wall had fallen literally under my radar, the controversies surrounding the NEA, Mapplethorpe, Serrano and censorship did not. Artists often make a pact with controversy, and in protest I resorted to photo-text pieces within the time-honored tradition of political expedience. But politics came too close for comfort several years later in 1992 with the passage of Amendment 2, a change in the Colorado Constitution intended not only to overturn gay-friendly housing and job ordinances in Denver, Boulder and Aspen, but also to essentially outlaw such ordinances for all time. (The Amendment was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later.) Before the election and In outrage, I cooked up fliers appropriating Nazi images from World War II history books, pairing them with info about the Amendment; not only did I send them (under an assumed named for fear of retribution) to local newspapers hoping for publication, I eventually found it in me to stand outside Folsom Field in Boulder handing them out to (or trying to hand them out to) men entering the find-Jesus-at-the-football-stadium gathering of Promise Keepers, a big supporter of the Amendment. But the following year I took a lighter, more confident approach: when invited by Cydney Payton, then director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, to paint a bus bench in the "Art In The Streets" festival, I emblazoned (i.e. it read from 100 feet) my bench with the simple phrase "Brought To You By The Militant Homosexual Agenda."
This engagement with politics allowed me in the later 90's to consider in numerous ways the politics of the land, vis a vis the rampant development happening all up and down the Front Range: landscape photos affixed to dumpster-found construction trash in a series called "The Real West;" large paintings of buffalo being subdivided first into maps and later into housing tracts; other work considering the first division of the land in the 1800's and the subsequent displacement of its original occupants, the Indians. With history now on the radar I found I was able to address it in other locales where I was only a visitor, whether in a series of paintings and photos examining lynching ("Spanish Moss: An Effigy of the South") while a visiting artist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, or history poems about two Dallas neighborhoods presented in public art proposals for their rapid transit system.
Among this wide spectrum of work and media (but not until I'd added several years of painted abstractions into the mix) I began to ask myself who is the Jack in all of this? Playing too much chameleon? Intuitively I began to find my way home in 1995, when I started to photograph a series of athletic young men, the first of whom came walking past my house with his dog. Stand-alone, metaphoric, textual, they not only explore issues of age and surface idealization, but have become a self-portrait too as I enter some of the images. I've also returned, since 2002, to painting landscape in various guises, often from travel photography. The two bodies of work are interacting now and fueling each other, and I think address who I really might be.
Our art world has broadened in the last twenty years, become more inclusive of artists from Asia, Africa, South America. And, as a sometimes-professor at various university art departments nationwide, I can attest to the fact that students these days aspire to an art that is more often than not interchangeable anywhere in the global village project room. But a few are looking a little closer to home, realizing, in Colorado, for example, that there's gold in them thar hills.
But there's a rub in that. Colorado and other in-between places have long seemed, to me, fly-over territory as far as the national art-world press/critical structure has been concerned. The artists I read about don't live in Colorado, and there is a price to be paid for living here: you can work here and show here but remain unknown to an art audience that is more than happy to jet off to this week's biennial or art fair opening somewhere in that global village near you. One comfort all artists can take is that it's been like that forever. Back in the 80's I used to meet collectors in L.A. who would only buy work by Los Angeles artists from galleries in New York. Another comfort is the internet, which has opened up lots of opportunities. And a younger audience with different priorities about media and entertainment may ultimately render the question of a geographic pecking order moot.