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Ann Nathan Gallery
Plato once said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and, indeed, man is the only creature who contemplates his own condition. It is what sets him apart from the animal. The nuances of human experience may alter, but the advice of the Delphic Oracle over two millennia ago stills holds true -- "Know Thyself." "Parables" by Aleksander Balos, at Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago, until April 28, 2001, offer just that opportunity. Here, eight oils on canvas engage an aesthetic dialogue with masters of the past, debate the practice and beliefs of current lives, reveal the flesh behind our modern metaphors, and accomplish this with a captivating virtuosity. The "Parables" of Aleksander Balos is an art with which to spend some time, in contemplation as well as in deep pleasure.
Those who spend much time with art often judge by familiar precedents, standards and affinities. But where the art is distinctly individual, these fall away. Art historian Frank Henry Goodyear in the 1980s noted political, social, and even broader, societal currents in contemporary realism, contrasting that focus with more traditional depictive intents. Among the former, Goodyear discussed artists such as Jack Beal and Alfred Leslie, and one does feel some kinship here with Aleksander Balos's concerns. Jack Beal, a turbulent Caravaggio of today, did after all produce his series, "Virtues and Vices." Among such artists, Beal is more expressionistic, but nonetheless drawn to a Hellenistic perception of the human creature. Beal's themes in that particular series -- Fortitude, Prudence, Justice, Hope, Faith, Charity; as well as Avarice, Lust, Anger, Sloth, Envy -- all have long histories in art and thought, foundations both theological and philosophical. But Jack Beal still holds to an emotional, even Romanticized involvement, however abstract in final theme. Alfred Leslie emerges as more particularized and intimate in focus and origin, but often with greater decorum in expression. One recalls Leslie's The Killing of Frank O'Hara (1966). Leslie took the senseless death of that writer, killed on the sand of Fire Island by a beach taxi, to allegorize the random and senseless pace of contemporaneity. Leslie was motivated by his own Christian faith. Whether one regards the ten to fifteen large works of his Killing cycle (1966-1970), or that artist's narrative paintings of the late 1970s, Leslie remains close to identifiable event for his content. How does Balos differ from Beal or Leslie? Aleksander Balos's "Parables" more closely approaches the spirit of Classical philosophy: A Hellenistic sense of many lives examined by a one discerning sight. And, as with the Golden age of Greece, Balos does it with a sense of human form, idealized into a vehicle worthy of philosophical expression. If, as evolutionist Julian Huxley once said, 'man is between the angels and the apes,' the paintings of Aleksander Balos examine what that means.
In the eight oils by Balos now at Ann Nathan Gallery, there is some of Leslie's visual repose and decorum, and, as with Beal, one finds an awareness of traditional terms about human nature: hope, love, and, as C.S. Lewis once observed, their true negation -- indifference. But Balos is an artist now and he carries these into a very contemporary nuance of individuals in society. Underlying Balos's composition, the viewer often finds a triangular arrangement played against a bottom fundament. But from within this idiom, the human form, nude and dynamic, enacts a universal tableau of what it strives to become, and what its circumstance demands that it remain. The artist's recourse to the nude denies a specific modern reference -- fashion would limit it in time -- and yet in his choice of content his art betrays a very current perception of experience.
The "Parables" treat, not so much actual emotional states or historical formulation, but our present preconceptions of them. There has always been foolishness, and indifference, as well as acceptance. Ours may be the first age to self-consciously obsess about them as an enduring state of the soul. And our age has created new variations on those themes. Contemporary English has adopted Ennui and Angst into its vocabulary. These are not new sins, nor even emotions. But they come with a cultural ediface, connotations, a matrix and a gloss, formerly absent in the English language's sense of world. No longer 'boredom' nor 'anxiety,' old concepts have gathered colorings even in their parent languages. Believing in such terms, we make them actualities -- often at our own peril. Our century has come to view man differently, and Balos's "Parables" discover and draw our eyes to that.
There is a process in this artist's work which bears close scrutiny. The course of art has seen it numerous times. It is an important process. At the opening, one impression came to mind; and still endures. So many of the famous Greek statues now known were originally parts of group ensembles. The famous Laocoon (c 200 BC) remains reasonably complete. Michelangelo was among the first to see it, when it was dug up in Rome in 1506. Michelangelo, confronting the Hellenistic high baroque, went on to create art like his four Captives, and his four Medici sculptures: Night, Day, Dawn, and Evening. The receptive artist consulted what had been done and known, and engaged it in dialogue. Aleksander Balos's eight oil paintings portray group ensembles. Balos has gone on to create contemporary art. He faces a continuing dialectic of human history.
Night Sleep (36"x66") exemplifies Balos's most recent work. Of the eight canvases in this showing, four incorporate ropes as an element used within their assembly of figures. This is both a formal aesthetic element and a telling conceptual detail. Human musculature is most revealed when in tension, when it strains. And it has long been recognized for its power of expression. The Mannerists owed much to that and Caravaggio, reinterpreting their final conventions, renewed art. Aleksander Balos also finds it an expressive means, and wields it with consistency. There is within these canvases a hidden logic which one feels is 'right.' In Night Sleep, the central figure in forelight is drawn onto a first plateau by a male figure already there. A flanking woman and man aid in raising the passive sleeping figure. Whether the first stages of sleep, or an allegory for entrance into a higher state, the image gains its enduring significance from two distant forms, another couple in the shadows at image left. These, as an apparent subsequent vision, actively employ the rope to ascend beyond. Drawn into a Night Sleep, a creature enters active dreams. The distant rope itself further seems to weigh down upon the thinly clouded background, only to reveal a further area behind painted scene. In such a work, the revealed image suggests so many things. Here is a fundamental archetype, repeated many times, which reveals itself in different guises to each viewer.
In Foolishness (Oil on canvas: 36"x66"), the woman at center, seemingly more indifferent than callous, casually tosses away paper slips bearing inscriptions in English, Polish, Spanish: "Open," "I do not... Welcome (Nie / Witam)," "La Vida." At left another woman stoops to catch a slip upon which the viewer discerns a single word "Right." At right, a male supplicant longs for what is thrown to the wind, and retrieved by another. Here is a gut reality, for which each viewer supplies a text; an intuited pattern, recognized beneath much ready, personal experience.
Lifting of the Human Spirit (44 1/2"x55") is more overt in its Platonist ideals. Here, an abstract is rendered as a visual, open possibility: a metaphor. Word, in a manner, takes on flesh and becomes a subject through the viewing eye. Of particular interest is the artist's implied assumption. The focal figure, left of center, is being lifted. Two figures at the right pull with effort at the uplifting cord, while a male directly in image center steadies the tentative ascent. An attendant female form exhorts the effort. At farthest left, a figure in a blue and patterned robe, passively withdrawn, serves only as a leverage. In this painting, an ensemble, as a whole, works toward a common goal. Lifting of the Human Spirit explores an evolving will for civilization -- but is a visceral analysis.
This showing at Ann Nathan Gallery includes Balos's Acceptance (36"x66") and Indifference (36"x66"). In fact, these are true contraries. Writer C.S.Lewis once pointed out that indifference, not hatred, is the opposite to love. In Acceptance, three female forms frame the central male. At right, a solicitous and clothed woman bends to offer aid, while at left, another female, only partially clad, appears to mourn, but enters in no active effort. Left of center, a woman seems to turn in awareness of the focal plight. Each figure offers a rich variety of response to the painting's central theme. Balos offers no programmatic specifics, no calculated narrative. The artist suggests possibilities and alternatives. Equally, Indifference implies a natural truth. While the central victim seems to accept his fate -- tormented by the ropes which elsewhere were an instrument of enlightenment -- his tormentor is a male, as is his greatest lamentor. The pictured female serves as compassionate and natural mediator.
A subtle, highly individual difference enters Balos's realisim. Balos abstracts social relationship and humanist context, but neither nature nor philosophy are allegorized or portrayed. The artist's choice of nude ensemble, echoing Hellenistic sensitivities, serves him well. Conceptualized and abstract thought is predicated upon physical experience in the phenomenal world: "experiential beliefs" and "embodied understanding." That this is a relatively recent awareness in our history is indicated by such volumes as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By. (University of Chicago Press: 1980) or Mark Johnson's The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (University of Chicago Press: 1987). But the art of Aleksander Balos is more immediate, and deeply gratifying than any commentaries.
Are the images of Aleksander Balos, then, visualized and contemporary societal actualities, embodied metaphors, or an intuited dialogue with current projections of one's self among fellow men? Either we see ourselves, or see ourselves as we fancy ourselves to be. Balos's paintings might well caution that 'each lives the life for which they settle, and thus deserve.' (Of cpourse a subjective judgement is concealed within that latter postulate.) Chicago scholar Allan Bloom noted it, citing past history's canon of seven deadly sins and the virtues which governed them. Modern life has created phantoms, neither sins, virtues nor even natural emotions, and is hurt by them. Paintings in this showing such as Acceptance, The Weight of the Second Half (36"x66"), or Connection (36"x66"), also imply that a converse is equally true. Above all. man is a creature in need of voluntary associations; what Aristotle called the 'societal animal.' Aleksander Balos explores that fact for this age. This is compelling work.
The "Parables" of Aleksander Balos demonstrate that in our new Millennium, the artist does not need to shout, nor resort to shock. We can look and come to know ourselves. What we bring away from that depends on each and every visitor. "Parables" in oil by Aleksander Balos, will be on display at Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago, until April 28, 2001.
A twelve-page full color catalogue of "Parables" by Aleksander Balos, with an introductory essay by John Brunetti, is available from Ann Nathan Gallery for $10.00. It is well worth acquiring. Aleksander Balos was born in Gliwice, Poland, and moved to the U.S. in 1989.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be ordered through this site's Barnes & Noble link. Frank H. Goodyear, Jr. is cited from Contemporary American Realism Since 1960 (New York Graphic Society/Pennsylvania of the Fine Arts: 1981). The Laocoon is illustrated in The Oxford History of Classical Art Ed. John Boardman (Oxford University Press: 1993). C.C.Lewis is referenced from The Four Loves (Harvest Books:1971). Allan Bloom's observations are in The Closing of The American Mind (Simon & Schuster:1987).