John Balsley

Nancy Lurie Gallery

John Balsley’s 1960s motorcycle sculptures reeked of stereotyped macho values: phallic speed machines complete with ruptured cyclers, gravel path and skid marks. His slightly later dark, bombardier-type hanging assemblages were less blatant—the way the parts were put together left it up to one’s imagination to invoke an antiwar response. But did Balsley really intend to glorify brute power, or harbor a lingering horror/fascination for speed, or want to confront a viewer with the imbecility of force? I would imagine Balsley never really resolved these questions himself.

What a surprise, then, to see so many of his ’70s projects reminiscent of the recent craftlike diaristic art by women. His very engaging “Diving Women” series, 1977, consists of small-scale paintings with pastel colored surfaces, decorative Art Deco stylistic influence, an immediacy of paint put on and scratched off the surface, and a breezy quality of images dashed off on sketch pads: a single woman runs, dives, swims and hangs on a half moon. His current Fetishes are exceptionally interesting items: small stuffed teddy bears and alligators encrusted with layers of ribbons, pins, beads, safety pins, button loops, oddly assorted teaspoons and other domestic trivia. Underneath it all, the “animal” lunges forward or is held up a little off-kilter on its metal prop, aiding the illusion that its outer self is in the process of an on-the-spot vibration or disintegration. As in primitive idols, these “beings” have an accumulated meaning from the connotations and functions of the various parts.

Balsley’s dynamic, enterprising way of intertwining, converting and overlapping materials is usually successful enough to carry an abstract dynamic force of its own. It is when he subjugates that dynamism to some obvious, trite social statement like tensions of modern life or to some overly narrative creation that his work becomes a foolish caricature.

C. L. Morrison