Critics’ Picks

View of “Dennis Balk,” 2009.

View of “Dennis Balk,” 2009.


Dennis Balk

INOVA - Institute of Visual Arts
Kenilworth Square East 2155 North Prospect Avenue
February 6–April 5, 2009

There is a renewed enthusiasm for the freedoms inherent in parafictions, falsehoods, and deception in contemporary art. Take, for example, the work of Reena Spaulings, Toni Burlap, Claire Fontaine, and Donelle Woolford. While pseudonyms and aliases expose limitations intrinsic to individual practices, lies and falsehoods inflate narrative impact, expanding political and entertainment value. The art-world sage Dennis Balk is a master at creating competing visions of reality. He has zealously presented his fictions in the form of plays, props, diagrams, drawings, books, and various other instructional didactics. The satiric title of his survey exhibition, “Dennis Balk: Early Work 1890–2090,” sets the stage for the theatrical show, which negotiates a range of works from his ’90s “Napkin Drawings,” imaginative time lines delineated on linen napkins with fine-point Sharpie, to a full rack of costumes borrowed from the theater department of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Peacock-blue stage curtains divide the exhibition space and transform it into a museum of official-looking inventions, theories, and curiosities. A wall tiled with digital prints depicting complex black-and-white optical studies, each titled Placebo Moires, 1997, is juxtaposed with Photo Magnetic Receiver, Double Array Device, Deactivated Partial Installation, 1999, an imposing object consisting of metal rods and fabric that suggests the symmetry of a television antenna while evoking the mystery of a NASA gadget. In another gallery, a framed, archival print of a poster of Ho Chi Minh hangs over a set of three steel drums titled Hollywood Homeless, 2009, and a set of “exhibition props,” according to a gallery checklist. Balk’s show gives expanded meaning to mash-ups and the language of “truthiness.” Critical, poetic, and funny, and spotted with elements of complex beauty, his concrete fictions convey a depth of wisdom and worldliness.