Jennifer Balkan paints the figures using broken, bright colors and inventive brushstrokes. She captures emotional states, exploring human profiles, Balkan approaches aspects of psychology and sociology. Balkan has always been inspired by women, who are the main characters in her work. She has been painting and exhibiting professionally since 2003. Her work has appeared in over two dozen print publications. Most recently she was singled out by the Austin Chronicle as their “best visual artist” for 2015.
Interview with Walt Morton
WALT MORTON: You’re a figurative painter who often does people, portraits and the human form — but you are not a realist. What is most prominent in your work is a tension between traditional anatomical accuracy and a very free, goopy, brushy textural paint application of vivid broken color. There are some other painters working texture vs. accuracy in broken color today (Anne Gale, Alex Kanevsky, etc.) But I am wondering how you came to this style of painting and how do your make your mental judgements about what to render accurately and where to let it flow. How do you decide when it’s “done” and when to keep it loose, even dripping.
JENNIFER BALKAN: Interesting that you say I am not a realist….I always tag myself as a contemporary realist! But hey, what are labels anyway. I suppose I say that because I intend on painting reality as it is there….but exaggerated in color sometimes, with fields or planes broken down into their constituent color. In this way, I wiggle between total representation with elements of abstraction….I see a continuum between the two poles and I am constantly struggling to move farther away from representationalism yet I still hold on. I have always loved this tension in others’ work and have been most drawn to it in figure and portrait painting by the likes of the German Expressionists of the early-mid 20th century. This painting makes me think. I love to see the picture in its entirety and its completeness from a distance and then break it down as I move forward toward it. I get lost in the strokes/marks. I can stare forever. There is feeling in it.
It’s really important for me to capture a likeness of an individual….so I try to do that before I let loose. But in doing that, I still want the form to read as a universe of shapes and temperature changes. I try to see the topography of the face, much like reading a topographic map and adjust temperatures and strokes as I would imagine slope changing across a cheek, for example. This excites me. When I can do this and capture likeness at the same time, I am elated. Sometimes it happens quickly and sometimes it feels like it’s taking forever. And then once I’ve nailed that expression of the subject, then I can let the drips fall and begin to deconstruct some form. It’s jazzy. And it is really tough to know when I’m done. I was just struggling with this today, in fact.
WALT MORTON: I gather that all your painting is alla prima, wet-in-wet, but do you do preliminary drawings or sketches? Do you do color studies or do you just “wing it” in applying broken color?
JENNIFER BALKAN: My painting used to be wet-in-wet all the time before I had a child. Back then, I could paint continuously. Then I had to learn to work differently which was unsettling at first. I couldn’t paint everyday as I had. That said, I never really did too many preliminary color studies or sketches. I typically “sketch” on the canvas…make lots of mistakes…correct them….or should I say go down different paths of exploration which sometimes lead me astray into a hole — or into something beautiful.
WALT MORTON: You’ve done a lot of self-portraits. Artists do selfies commonly, but why do you do it? What do you get out of it? Are the self-portraits you do now different than ten years ago?
JENNIFER BALKAN: I love doing self-portraits….they started because of my constant need for a model. And then there were times when I was working on series of narratives in which I’d hire a model who would work as an actor of sorts, like acting out a character in a play. I’d always get very nervous before our photo shoot or painting session….that I wouldn’t end up with what I saw in my vision — which inevitably is what life is about! I mean one never ends up with what one imagines and this is beautiful and good because there is process that happens between the initial vision and the end result. So anyway, in 2007 I decided to be my own actor so that I could screw up and redo and experiment and fail and constantly try again. I painted a series of me….I didn’t call them self-portraits though. I thought of them as me playing/posing as a subject in a series. I was nervous and insecure as all hell before the exhibit opening. I kept worrying that the world would see me as an awful narcissist obsessed with portraying myself. After that show, I got over it. I was initially inspired by another artist who often painted herself….and it always seemed to me that she was experimenting with design, shape, color, etc. to push the limits of her expression, more than just some need to articulate another side of herself. This encouraged me. So ever since then, I’ve relaxed with that sentiment. I play with technique a lot. So I think my selfies now are a lot stronger than they once were.
WALT MORTON: Though from New Jersey, you live in Austin, Texas which is known as an artsy town but more for it’s music scene and film festival. What’s Austin like for a fine artist and how has living in Texas changed your work or attitude? How do the locals see your work? Do you think it’s better to be an art star in Austin than live in New York?
JENNIFER BALKAN: Austin is really all I know as an artist. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else at this point. And this is where I became an artist. The visual art scene has definitely grown over the years. The focus in Austin has been more on conceptual art…and so figurative work is not as embraced here as it is say in other Texas cities (who have older scenes and significant museums like in Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth). But we definitely have a strong community of artists here. And I have found myself in a great core of figurative painters who paint together regularly. I feel lucky. People used to say that Austin is a great place to be an artist but if you want to sell your work, you’ve got to get it out of here. I think that has changed. Since it’s become a destination city and the population has been growing exponentially, there has been a greater demand for original artwork and people are now willing to pay a good price for it. I showed at a gallery in town for a number of years and so Austinites became familiar with my work. I am thankful for that. So I do feel nurtured here. It would be tough to leave. That said, I could imagine living in a smaller city but definitely not a New York. In my old age, I’d like mountains around me.
WALT MORTON: What’s the most important thing you know about painting the human figure that you’ve learned in the last ten years?
JENNIFER BALKAN: Gosh that’s tough…..there are so many things and honestly, I think they apply to painting in general, not just the figure. But here are a few:
1. Paint from life whenever I can….. the only way I’ll ever be able to make someone or something feel lifelike is if I know how light falls over form through direct observation. Then I can use this information to help me add what a photo reference lacks.
2. Paint what I see, not what I know….. recently I have gotten to the point of being able to paint what I don’t see and it’s wonderful!! That is, I’ve been adding to what’s there in an improvisational way …. that works, at times, so I hope.
3. If ever i get into a block, that is, a head space which prevents me from painting, start painting the little ordinary things around me. Painting is about process for me. And sometimes I forget. A few years ago, I became so caught up with the vision and intention in beginning a painting but felt stuck and empty because I wasn’t able to come up with something compelling. I was at a loss until I remembered why I paint in the first place — because I love the feel, the exploration, the handling of paint….and I realized it didn’t matter what I painted. I could bring any subject to a heightened state so long as it’s painted with presence and passion. Through painting fruit, I became unstuck. I try never to forget this.