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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Method in Madness

Art Review

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Some artists don't offer up their secrets too willingly. Such is the case with Dennis Balk, whose work is currently on display at Inova/Kenilworth (through April 5). Balk deploys a vast arsenal of media and disciplines, from mythology to nanotechnology, arousing an edifying incomprehensibility in his audience. Nonetheless, he's careful to ensure it's porous enough to allow some glimmers of understanding to peek through-enough to prompt viewers to seek out a thread of connectivity binding the whole thing together.

Like its title, "Early Work 1890-2090," the exhibit abounds in an engaging improbability that makes the incredible seem credible. At the same time you can't help but wonder if there's a surreptitious cynicism pervading the clutter of ideas and images. The viewer is forced to walk the tightrope between skepticism and wide-eyed belief and draw his own conclusions-or none at all, as the case may be.

To accommodate Balk's sprawling, multidisciplinary body of work without being suffocated by it, the gallery has been divided into three rooms of more or less the same size. Each is strewn with the untidy apparatus of his experimentation (or playful chicanery)-cloth napkins inscribed with wordy diagrams; crisp, computer renderings of subatomic behavior; high-resolution photographs of Middle Eastern market vendors interspersed with images of digitally generated forms; props from past performance art; sketchy drawings that seem to belong to science fiction; laminated lists outlining science fact. You can see the artist's imagination roam freely from the micro to macro scale where history, anthropology and science are mashed together with enough artlessness and ingenuity to make the whole thing seem almost credible.

Some good prototypes of this fervent eclecticism are Balk's napkin drawings. Here the artist indulges in a bit of whimsy, a bit of genius and a bit of make-believe to demonstrate the simultaneity of disparate strands of history and culture. In one drawing he examines the parallel paths that lead to Voltaire's satirical wit. In another, the River of Mythology separates the physical and behavioral sciences.

Seamlessly switching from metaphor to literalism, Balk requires an open-minded agility from his viewer, as well as a strain of disbelief. The exhibit is untidy and erratic. Without resorting to predictable irreverence, it challenges the orderly procession of the gallery experience. It's noisy, and engages the viewer in a quest for the rhythm within that noise. At the same time it questions whether that quest for method in the madness is worth undertaking. Given the choice between order and unpredictability, are we really willing to choose?

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