San Francisco

Chris Ballantyne

Hosfelt Gallery

It was no great surprise when crumbling subprime mortgages tipped the US economy off balance recently; the residences that the loans almost bought are literally and figuratively built on illusions, whether financial fantasies, cheap construction materials, or ill-considered locations. These conditions form the distinctly shaky foundations not only of contemporary American architecture but of contemporary American life in general, and they are the central focus of Chris Ballantyne’s paintings on paper, wood, and wall. Ballantyne’s work represents desolate, depopulated suburban and exurban environments with crisply geometric images of tract homes set in verdant flatlands. His impoverished landscapes evoke places where development has sprouted on pastoral plains, resulting in something like Charles Sheeler’s paintings of factories without those works’ sense of the sublime, or their maker’s belief in the beneficial power of industrialization.

In Ballantyne’s paintings at Hosfelt Gallery, the isolation of these sites seems characterized by an eerie sense of calm, even when there is evidence of violence beneath the placid surface. In a prominently placed acrylic-on-paper, Untitled, Culvert (Waterfall), 2007, a meteor-like chunk of sylvan landscape, bisected by an aqueduct, floats against a blank gray background. With Pat Steir–like drips of brown paint, Ballantyne describes the jagged soil under the grassy plain, as if the site had been clawed up by an unseen force, leaving the water to flow forward and down like a waterfall into the void. One might read this work as environmentalist critique, but there is also a sense of psychic drain here. At his best, Ballantyne is able to highlight this psychological element, using flat planes of paint and fine lines to emphasize the numbing effects of the structures he depicts.

Water is a prevalent motif throughout the work in this show, featured most prominently in an expansive horizontal wall painting, Untitled, 2008, depicting a body of water with sandy coastal patches on either side. (Ballantyne makes a regular practice of complementing his discrete works with murals.) The bulk of this artificial lake is rendered in pale teal wall paint, a fitting material given the artist’s preoccupation with tract homes. On this vast, uninflected expanse of blue, he hung a framed painting on paper, Untitled, Canal (Disconnect), 2007. Here, diluted acrylic is used to depict rows of houses emphatically separated from one another by concrete culverts and patches of asphalt. The houses are empty white forms, ghostly, their short fences hugging modest slopes. The architecture appears to be new, but it’s invariably detached and seemingly abandoned.

Modularity also informs Untitled, Neighborhood (Tight-Knit), 2008, a dense configuration of eight L-shaped houses arranged to create four squares, with little courtyards at their centers. Fused together, these multicolored abodes suggest an ordered mutation, a truncated Winchester Mystery House combined with the polygamy-serving multiple lots of the TV drama Big Love. The painting suggests a cozy community, though ironically the houses appear impervious in such a tight, angular configuration. The fortress of quietude echoes the deceptively placid tone of Robert Bechtle’s photorealistic canvases, though Ballantyne’s pictures present us with more desolate settings—the distance he introduces between buildings and the sealed-in nature of the “close knit” compound effectively explode the very idea of “neighborhood.”

Glen Helfand