Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009

Dennis Balk Retrospective

By Aisha Motlani
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Some artists don’t offer up their secrets too willingly. Such is the case with the Dennis Balk, whose work is currently on display at Inova Kenilworth. Balk deploys a vast arsenal of media and disciplines, from mythology to nanotechnology, to arouse an edifying incomprehensibility in his audience. Nonetheless, he’s careful to ensure it’s porous enough 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 189-2090,” the exhibit abounds in an engaging improbability that makes the incredible seem credible. At the same time you can’t help wonder if there’s a surreptitious cynicism pervading the clutter of idea 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 sub-atomic behavior; 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 mushed together with enough artlessness ingenuity to make the whole thing seem almost credible.


A good prototype 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 belief to demonstrate the simultaneity of disparate strands of history and culture. In one drawing he examines the parallel paths which lead to Voltaire’s satirical wit. In another the physical and behavioral sciences are separated by the River of Mythology. Seamlessly switching from metaphor to literalism, Balk requires an open-minded agility from his viewer and also 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?

Runs through April 5.

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