Mary Balomenos

Diane Farris Gallery

The English word “photographer” comes from two Greek words that together can be translated literally as “someone who writes with light.” By comparison, the Modern Greek word for painter, zographos, comes from two Greek words that can be translated “someone who writes with life.” This first solo exhibition of paintings and drawings by Mary Balomenos, a Canadian painter of Greek ancestry who has been working in Paris for the last eight years, takes its strength from tensions the artist is able to bring forth through a variety of abstract and figurative forms, rendered, for the most part, in earth tones and charcoal. These tensions may be located, for the purposes of talking about her work, by asking, What would it mean to write with life, and how would this differ from writing with light?

Here, writing, or graphos, takes on its earlier, Greek meaning to include painting and drawing. One of the artist’s paintings is Zoo, 1988. The English word “zoo” is derived from the Greek word meaning “life,” the zo- of the above-mentioned word for painter, zographos. Although, as a landscape, Zoo was one of the more figurative paintings on view, the scene showed no animals or people, only trees and the large arc of a geometrical structure. The viewer’s expectations are dramatically undermined at this double place of seeing, before a painting and at the zoo. The point of concentration in these works is not vision but a powerful reworking of the questions surrounding vision.

A few of the drawings take as their starting point surviving clay statues of Greek comic actors, but much of the work also appears to draw upon—and comment on—what could be called Greek tragedy’s perplexity about the duality of vision and blindness. In ancient Greek tragedies, vision as a metaphor for knowledge undergoes a crisis, because blindness turns out to be always implicated in vision; the figures of Tiresias and Oedipus are only the two most prominent examples of this. In a related manner, Balomenos uses the rectangular lantern from Goya’s The Third of May as an element in a number of her paintings. The lantern both lights the scene for Goya’s brush and for the firing squad of French soldiers executing the artist’s compatriots. Hence the divided source of light, quoted from Goya, is one of the elements in this work evoking a tragic problematizing of vision as knowledge.

Some of these paintings rely strongly on subtle references to art history and could be considered less accessible than the works by Balomenos that draw on photography. Perhaps because of the artist’s familiarity with Greek icons, the images taken from photographs undergo a transformation that has to do with the effects of time upon the physicality and significance of images. Either by reworking the surface of a painting many times over, like the repainting of an icon numerous times over centuries, or by overlaying images from icons with photographs, Balomenos explores issues of intertextuality. Photography is here, even when not overtly referred to, the most prominent other graphos, and an exploration of the tension between mediums is part of what makes this work so strong.

Richard C. Ledes