When Marek Wieczorek, associate professor of art history, was working in a gallery in his native Netherlands, he met an artist named Carel Balth whose work he found engaging. Now, more than 25 years later, Wieczorek has curated an exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery that features Balths art (see slideshow below).
Its an interesting departure for Wieczorek, who normally specializes in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century European art and avant-garde culture. But he also has a fascination with artists who combine different media in a single work. And, he said, in some ways Balth falls within the long tradition of Dutch artists.
“When I took a visiting scholar to see the exhibition, he was reminded of Vermeer. Theres a kind of stillness and a concern with light,” he said.
Balth is quite established in Europe, having been active since the late 60s, but is not well known in the United States, Wieczorek said. The professor has, however, maintained contact with Balth. When Wieczorek was in graduate school at Columbia University, Balth came to the city for an extended stay twice a year and Wieczorek was able to visit his studio. Hes written a number of essays about Balths art, including the lead essay in a book called Heartbeat, which is a compilation of Balths work of more than four decades.
When Wieczorek showed Elizabeth Brown, former curator at the Henry, that book, her response was very positive and she immediately suggested to Wieczorek that he should come talk to the curatorial team at the Henry about a possible exhibition.
Videowatercolors: Carel Balth among his Contemporaries is the result. Wieczorek chose Balth works from 1974 to the present, and added related works from the Henrys permanent collection.
“Theres a lot to see in this exhibit,” Wieczorek said. “It was a wonderful challenge because we were able to make configurations and establish dialogues with other artists that you would never have otherwise thought of.”
Balth has made many different kinds of works in his career, but his hallmark is “exploring the intersections between photography, painting and new media,” according to a brochure Wieczorek wrote for the exhibition. Included are works made by scratching on Polaroid photos while they are in process, by using a laser scanner on images, then transposing it through a giant plotter that sprays pigment on canvases and by using a similar process on vinyl, so the pigment doesnt soak in. But the so-called videowatercolors are the centerpiece.
“The two words — video and watercolor — seem antithetical,” Wieczorek said. “Video conjures up pixelated vertical screens. Its actually digital video were talking about, so something very modern, very cutting-edge. And watercolor is as old as art. It has to do with a horizontal orientation that results from the flow of pigmented water.”
What Balth has done is take two or more “videograbs” from a digital video hes made and manipulate and juxtapose them to make something new. For example, his Skyscape (Blue Horizon) looks like a traditional landscape, with blue sky above a horizon and what appears to be sand below. In this case there are two grabs that were taken from a video shot out an airplane window that was covered with ice crystals. Balth placed a blue sky view above and dark clouds below, with the line between them standing in for the horizon.
We see a landscape where there is none, Wieczorek said, because the idea of a horizon is so ingrained in our vision. To drive the point home, hes placed Skyscape next to work by two artists — Hiroshi Sugimoto and Garry Fabian Miller — that deals with the given of the horizon.
A similarly deceptive image is Moving II, which involves four videograbs — stacked in pairs above each other. The lower half is clearly of water, but the upper half looks strange and fibrous. Then you discover that if you tilt your head to the left to look at the work sideways, the image above is water too, only enlarged and turned on its side.
“Its all about perception. Its all about flow,” Wieczorek said. “It doesnt require any foreknowledge. Youre looking at something familiar, but its presented in a way that prods you to ask questions, to spend time, to slow down.”
Which is a bit of a surprise, given that the work is ultramodern, new media, and people today are used to being bombarded with images. But Balths images are meant for contemplation.
The work at the Henry is available to anyone, but Wieczorek is also teaching a class this quarter that focuses on “inter-media” and was designed to be taught in conjunction with the exhibition. The students are contemplating what it means to be between painting, photography and new media.
“We have been looking a lot at the history of photography because already there, what we take for granted has so infiltrated our way of thinking about the world,” Wieczorek said. “What does it mean when you have a creative process, and yet you press a button and there is a picture? Everyone can take photos these days. What does it mean to have art in an age of reproducibility?”
Balth himself came to speak earlier in the quarter, and on Friday, Dec. 2, a Dutch scholar, Sjoukje van der Meulen, who is an expert on new media will be here to speak to Wieczoreks class and to give a public lecture (on French media artist Pierre Huyghe) at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1, in 003 Art. Wieczorek will give a lecture (free for students, $5 for others) at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 9, in the Henry Auditorium. He plans to focus on the relationship between Balths work and that of other artists represented in the exhibition.
“I will talk about the connections that I see, what ties these people together, and some sort of reflection on what representation and reproduction of imagery in general means in our digital age,” Wieczorek said. “I think there are some very profound questions about our time that can be asked and sometimes answered by juxtaposing these artists.”
On Friday, Jan. 13, the students will have their say. Theyre writing papers for the class, and Wieczorek plans to have some of them make short presentations based on the papers, to provide “an evening of thinking through questions that the exhibition provokes.” Presentations begin at 6 p.m. in the north galleries, and presenters will conduct tours of the exhibit starting at 7. The event is free for student
s, $5 for others.
The show ends on Jan. 22, but in the meantime it is open to the public. Admission to the Henry is always free for faculty and staff.