IN THE PICTORIAL REALM: BALLANTYNE’S PERSISTENT REALITY
by Donald Brackett
“Music is constant. Listening is intermittent.” —John Cage
The same could be said for both looking and seeing and also for depicting our visions in the realm of painted images: looking is constant but actual seeing is only occasional. Paintings such as Ballantyne’s are invitations to a ritual of looking that engages our imaginations far above and below the apparently straightforward substance of the images represented. They are what they appear to be: placid architectural spaces, portraits of both interiors and exteriors, still life’s with rooms and buildings instead of fruits or flowers, designed and built landscapes at once tightly contained and yet fully open to conjecture.
As such they also aspire to be accurate diagrams of something impossible to behold, something which the poet Goethe once offered as an ideal definition of what architecture is and what it does: frozen music. In Ballantyne’s work we witness a certain kind of mathematical precision which is not strictly realistic per se but in fact actually arrives at quite a different destination: a metaphysical dwelling place for the frozen music of form and content. Another primary and recurring focus of his work is the frequent element of illuminated objects which remind us of the original meaning of the word photo-graphis: drawing with light.
Fiat Lux! some of these images seem to whisper, let there be light, and the purity of “Tower Stairs” is a good place to begin contemplating the precious qualities not only of painting with light but also paintings of light itself as a subject, and of its palpable yet often invisible personality in our lives. The artist has observed that he sees painting as a tentative step towards realizing “the self”, and to express that process he uses “simple exteriors or interiors of buildings accentuated with light, light as a metaphor, a means of illuminating the subject and, at the same time, symbolizing enlightenment”. But just as enlightenment is not actually as complicated as it first appears to be, these lux meditations are definitely not quite as simple as they first appear to be. He investigates what lies beneath the surface of things and arrives at what the philosophically inclined might call things-in-themselves. This artist is building a staircase to heaven without ever leaving the earth.
While Ballantyne’s kind of themes and these accurate depictions of the recognizable world around us are often called photorealism or pictorial realism, I find it more accurate and rewarding to perceive them as magic realism. Either way, the artist’s persistent commitment to capturing the essence of appearances and the mysteries below the surface is laudable in an age still avidly absorbed by both the abstract and the conceptual. As for their visual references or aesthetic geneology, while some viewers may tend to identify a resonance with the Canadian realists Colville or Pratt, or the Americans Wyeth or Hopper, I tend to veer toward their affinity with other more magic realists such as Fransoli, Guglielmi or Helder. They are similarly crisp and tidy, presented in bold outlines, with forms defined by soft but stark lights and gentle but profound shadows.
Both “BullsEye” and “Her Attic” for instance, register slightly vertiginous takes on the upper levels of wooden structures, one with a straight ahead and centred field of vision which includes a lovely miniature landscape outside its window, the other a skewed angle looking upward at a wood framed window transom which may or may not be in the same building. In fact, one of the pleasures of this body of work is that all the members of the serial progression could indeed be views, renderings and paintings of buildings within a radius of a few hundred feet of each other. Or, equally charming, they could be miles or even light years apart.
There’s also a captivating narrative at play in his work, not one that tends towards the programmatic, but rather a story of inanimate shapes encountered by sentient beings and activated by our presence amongst them. Especially strong is the sensation of sitting, although in keeping with their purity they are seats without sitters. Except that we are the sitters, now briefly standing before each image that invites recline and reflection. So, “Visitors” “Silent Pews” “Seats 22 and 23” and most mysteriously, “The Office”, all offer repose in a dramatic yet meditative manner that provokes a placid state of calm absorption, safety and sanctuary.
Perhaps also the unique sitting practiced in contemplation is being alluded to, which prompts me to bestow a new name on his pictorial sensibility: transcendental mediation, where the painter’s practiced eye and hand mediates between us and the painted image.
Indeed, one could identify sanctuary itself as the true subject and theme of his work. Like Charles Sheeler’s own deft images of the built, industrial or urban landscape, they utilize a shared severe but reassuring gridwork that was often associated with a group of artists known as the Precisionists. Yes, they are precise, there is no room for chaos or accident here, unless it is the viewer who brings those ingredients into play through our participation in his ritual of looking.
Yet despite their precision in execution and style, they also share a secret sense of the sacred, not because they often employ church architecture, but because they utterly fuse form and content and remind us of what great painters all try to achieve: that a painting is not a picture of an experience, it is itself an experience. Thus there seem to be a wide variety of sitting: secular seats such as those in a stadium, sacred seats such as those in a place of worship. Indeed, churches also recur with some regularity in his work: “Creek Church” and “Prairie Church” both ironically suggest rigorous modernist edges merged with the subtle nostalgia of a rural sensibility. Somehow this paradox works perfectly.
“The White House” is another precise diagram of dwelling without a fixed definition to limit our experience, one where the mediator is there but not there, just as the strangely white windows are both open and closed at the same time. Through his rendering of the built environment so accurately he actually allows it to become utterly surreal, and each of his rituals of looking and seeing reveal much more than can be merely imagined about the builders and dwellers. They’re about us.
The artist Edward Hopper once opined that he could imagine growing old painting only the way light hits a white wall. In the case of Ballantyne, he might be suggesting that by doing so we may actually be growing younger. Indeed, dogs, birds and children might see land, sky and buildings exactly this way. Maybe we should try to join them.
John Ballantyne: Filling Emptiness with Meaning
John Ballantyne is fascinated by emptiness. He paints empty rooms, empty seats, empty stages. One of his favourite subjects is the Brome Fair grounds off-season, the stark white buildings completely desolate. But these emptinesses, paradoxically, are not really voids. John sees a deserted stage as filled with expectation and disappointment. An empty church is loaded with humanity’s complex relationship to god and religion. The absence of human or even animal figures in his paintings conveys a sense of alienation and abandonment, but here too he sees something else: the empty interior spaces are always filled with light, a metaphor for divine enlightenment. “We are never completely lost in the dark,” he says.
Having given up on formal schooling, in his early twenties John finally heeded an inner voice that told him to “buy a paintbrush and go to work.” He went to Toronto, “where we all painted as fast as we could, copying the huge abstract paintings” of the late sixties. It wasn’t long before John realised this wasn’t his style. Inspired by Shaker-like simplicity, John is more akin to Alex Colville and Christopher Pratt of the East Coast school in the stark precision of his work. He likes to work very slowly and carefully. Painting full time, he devotes a few months to each painting. He points to his most recent work: “just the grass took five weeks.”
Though spare and austere at first glance, John’s paintings are always striking in composition, even unsettling in their proportions and perspectives and in the interplay of human constructions in natural settings. But another look reveals a richness of texture in the surfaces and a playfulness in hidden details. He is amazingly meticulous in his technique, and uses thousands of dollars worth of specially made brushes to achieve the effects he wants. He does preliminary drawings complete in every detail, but claims he is “relaxing a bit now, and will leave some things out.” His studio is as uncluttered as his art, all his pencils and brushes perfectly organised. He has even devised special methods for preventing smudges on his work, delighting in all these technicalities as much as in his painting.
Yet despite his painstaking work, John is relaxed. Jovial and engaging, he has the air of a man happy with his life and his art. Indeed, it seems his particular style is more the result of a spiritual serenity than a tendency to be tense. “Actually, it’s a reflection of my mother, who valued order above all else,” he says. But then he tells me, “it’s a guy thing; guys love tinkering with details, figuring out how things get put together.” And this is what John does in his studio filled with light.
By Susan Briscoe, Sutton 2003 ©