New York

Richard Ballard

Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art, Ltd.

The oeuvre of Richard Ballad, a Paris-based British artist who’s spent considerable time in New York, can be read as a progression from lyric figurative expressionism to a pared-down, even brooding exploration of mostly natural forms. The tenor of his later paintings is hermetic, reflective of a meditative bent that comes to inhabit Ballard’s aesthetic in as passionate a manner as natural forms inhabit his early work. The thirty-seven watercolors in this retrospective of his paintings from the past two decades fall into six series. he earliest are airy and Matissian. Odalisque in a Dream, 1981, features a cheery scumble of what look like brightly patterned fabrics. The young Ballard delights in texture and pigment, the breezy cohabitation of translucent colors and awkward shapes; white space plays as much of a role as color in these images. A more pointed concern with form marks the paintings in his spare, spacious “Forest” series, in which his palette is simplified to brown, taupe, and leaf yellow and negative space is shaped to suggest background elements. In the 1985 seascape At Sky, Two Birds, painterly blotches combine to suggest the vagarious richness of a natural setting. The birds are evident only in the title, perhaps as a metaphor for our gaze as it skims the work’s surface.

Ballard’s engagement with form intensifies in the ’90s, in a series of paintings of hay bales, meditations on light’s play across a simple form that recalls the haystacks Monet immortalized, though Ballard’s project is sparer, more purely muscular and calligraphic than painterly. Ballard’s brushwork in the “Red Bales” works. 1995, is especially athletic—impressive given the notoriously delicate and unforgiving nature of watercolor. Elsewhere, in Black Bales #6, 1995, a pair of looming cylindrical forms Inhabit a dark, almost acetylene atmosphere, the gradations of the hues recalling the effect of moonlight on an exotic insect’s wings. While in his artist’s statement Ballard speaks of “the control of watercolor over the surface of paper” as “mysterious,” it’s a mystery he negotiates with bravura. Ballard seems particularly concerned with the moment in which an object in a certain light can hover in a blur of perceptual uncertainty that almost allows it to disintegrate or to become something else. In the “Australian Rocks” series, 1995, chockablock muddles of bright earthen hues lose nearly all their representational function; the work instead conveys a happily confused sense of sheer luminosity.

If Ballard’s project overlaps with Impressionism, the elemental shapes into which the figures in his works resolve seem somehow more geometric or totemic than anything one normally associates with the French painters. Ballard’s recent “Kalimnos” works, made in Greece in 2001, focus on an island cove painted from above, as if from a mountaintop. In Kalimnos #1 Ballard’s unornamented brushwork suggests the clarity and depth of the Mediterranean. He depicts the shore with a single stroke whose simplicity recalls his earliest works, while pointedly leaving slivers of space unpainted to suggest whitecaps. In his “Power Lines” series, 2001, form returns in its more usual, solid aspect. Crisscrossing beams and wires parcel out a steely sky in these, his most accomplished paintings. All the mystery is saved for the gray washes that evoke the sky by barely suggesting its various depths and textures. Somehow we are able to veer into Ballard’s paint as we might the sky itself. Among clouds, fields, forests, and shores, the light Ballard reflects seems born of the enigma of mere presence.

Tom Breidenbach