Dennis Balk

Institute of Visual Arts

That the title of this exhibition, “Dennis Balk: Early Work 1890–2090,” turned out to seem plausible was only the first of its many twists. Sixty photographs, sculptures, drawings on tablecloths and napkins, videos, silk screens, found objects, installations, collages, and pieces of mail art surveyed an artist so omnivorous, so much a living kunstkammer, that anything felt possible.

The credo uniting Balk’s disparate output appeared on a piece of laminated paper embedded within Photo Magnetic Receiver, installation component, 2009, a rambling, collagelike installation made from found and fabricated elements: “Material objects have a dual physicality; half is available to visual perception and the other, its complement, falls just beyond our current configuration of perceptual capabilities. If the limitations of retinal perception are the bandwidths of visible light, what other information is present but escapes the immediacy of sight? Is visual perception capable of increasing its reach?” With these queries, Balk frames his work as an interrogation of how art might present systems that open up new channels of understanding. Optical perception occupies a privileged position in interpretation; here it is shown to be not clarifying or stable, but a widening gyre that is perpetually in flux, expanding endlessly.

Balk zips through piles of inventories, lists, flowcharts, diagrams, sequential imagery and the like, whose mannered and sometimes wackily Rube Goldberg–like inventiveness causes each to turn in on itself—less a critique of communication than a means to foreground its endless proliferation, even if in an initially manic way. A series of highly detailed flowcharts—many, including Genetics with French Revolutionaries, 1992, hand drawn with a felt-tip pen on linen napkins—counter the stability of scholarly research with an insistence on the personal. Their unexpected materials and looping, erratic lines demonstrate a new way of thinking, suggesting that authoritative-seeming genealogies, taxonomies, and diagrams can in fact be capricious and inbred. Throughout the exhibition, Balk’s maverick investigations of perceptual platforms evince a Buckminster Fuller–like ability to seem at first a fantasist, only to be revealed upon closer inspection as an innovator.

The artist’s more-is-more installation strategies brought bits of Milwaukee—including large museum banners from the Milwaukee Art Museum and a rack of ornate costumes from the theater department of the Peck School of the Arts—into the exhibition. Here, Balk couched his art in relocation, a shuffling of objects. By doing so, he indicates that perception is contextual, that everything can be an artifact, and that jumbling may provide just enough disorientation to allow for reorientation. In an arrangement of four prints from the 1997 series “Placebo Moire,” overlapping linear and spatial vortices surged in and around one another, creating a hypnotic visual slippage. The geometrical play recalls Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, and delights in destroying optic stability. These four works were hung so that they covered fifteen smaller vortex prints, with one completely hidden. The resultant visual and temporal ebb and flow is the Balk zone, a place where meaning is not only endlessly deferred, it is enhanced by the procedural journey both toward and away from it.

James Yood