New York

Dennis Balk

American Fine Arts

No two Dennis Balk exhibitions are ever alike. Over the course of two decades of work in New York, he has diagrammed quasi-historical vignettes on sets of cloth dinner napkins; written plays for the theater, some of which were linked to sculptural props displaced to a gallery; displayed raw vegetables on folding tables; and constructed machines that measure unseen forces (which were contingent on the viewer’s physical participation). He has written a novella concerning, among other things, secret knowledge in ancient Egypt, and he currently writes on topics of interest in nanotechnology and physics. At times he reveals himself to be a vintage-variety Conceptual artist, in that inquiries and sets of ideas are always presented as the basis of the work and underlie their ever-changing material means. And yet he is also a visionary artist with a hermeneutic bent and a quest—to make visible that which, essentially, has no visual dimension, particularly in relation to quantum physics, unified field theory, and the movement and behavior of subatomic particles.

As with this exhibition, “particles + waves with plausibility,” clues pointing to deeper meanings and motivations lurk in the titular language; otherwise, the viewer might never realize how hard-core the science gets. Balk is, after all, very good at making information and theory look like entertainment, and he accomplishes this by hybridizing and playing back contemporary visual codes (global/digital/youth/travel/culture/masculine/fun) revved up with special effects (game/world sci-fi/simulation/fantasy/NASA).

A Middle Eastern theme is shuffled into the series of forty-seven digital color prints, each thirty by twenty-four inches and presented in one long line that wrapped around gallery walls. Here are faces of Egyptian and Moroccan boys and men—a couple of cool kids encountered in an alley, nut vendors at the market in Fez, smiling men in blue turbans—and images of dramatic desert, of the pyramids and other ancient stone works, which reverberate with thousands of years of history. Pleasure finds its way into the series too—in images of gorgeous, soft mounds of coral-pink, mint-green, and almond nougat candies heaped on silver trays; stacks of beautifully bound and inscribed leather volumes of the Koran; and endless stretches of sun-bleached earth. Counterbalancing the tradition, timelessness, sensuality, and touristic frame that characterizes the 35 mm photographs of northern Africa are Balk’s “design models,” as he calls them: eye-popping 3-D-modeled digital bodies that wrest the visual material from an exotic-romantic, postcard-picturesque trajectory. Digitally implanted in a rocky landscape or whirling out of the sky or dynamically occupying their own virtual spaces, the computer-generated forms are vaguely familiar yet completely elusive when it comes to saying exactly what they are or what they represent. Whether accessible immediately or never at all, they effectively prevent absorption into reveries of antiquity and the infinitude of the everyday.

In The Eroded Surface, ancient vapor droplet, extinction, particle horizon (various), 2002, glitzy, computer-generated symbols (their meanings never specified) swagger vertically (think sculptures on Easter Island) in a lurid Technicolor desert setting worthy of an early Star Trek episode. In Memes and models compare and contrast particle drift, New York graffiti/Cairo street boys, 2002, tautly compressed whirling shapes are sandwiched between street portraits of two Egyptian boys and photographs of graffiti-covered panel trucks. Morphological resonance, teased into action, unfolds as spiraling, circling and other formal motifs pass back and forth between the two types of image-subjects. We are prompted to look for plausible correspondences as we compare and contrast families of visual information. The “drift” that pulls us in and lays out various visual sequences and morphing patterns—like a “Meme gang,” to borrow from one of Balk’s titles—attempts to yo-yo as far back and as far forward as images can take us. And how far can images take us? It’s a huge question Balk poses, whether in relation to quantum physics or to the ways we see the world we live in every day.

Jan Avgikos