Artist Blog



Jack Balas made his name painting the perfect nude man.
Now he's back for his first Colorado solo show in 12 years.

ONLINE ADDRESS: https://theknow.denverpost.com/2020/12/06/jack-balas-william-havu-gallery-naked-men-art/250046/

Jack Balas, 2018--2007; RAINBOW (#1668, 276); oil and enamel on canvas, 32" x 48"


The male figure in art: stripped-down, buffed-up and searching for a way forward

By Ray Mark Rinaldi, Special to The Denver Post Dec 6, 2020


Jack Balas has earned a significant professional reputation by turning a familiar art world trope on its head. Instead of painting female nudes, he paints male nudes, replacing the curvy, vulnerable, often sexualized subjects associated with such historic figures as Botticelli, Boucher and Manet with young, sinewy men whose buff physiques and chiseled cheeks speak for themselves.
Balas has enjoyed a decades-long career, and although he has made other notable bodies of work - he's a talented writer, photographer and landscape painter, as well - his All-American musclemen put him on the map, paid his bills and made him a fixture in Denver and beyond. The penis, as common as it is in the real world, doesn't present itself so much in commercial galleries, and people tend to remember when they see one, even if a thoughtful artist such as Balas has other important things he wants to show us in the picture.

Lately, he's largely been missing in action, at least locally. Balas did produce a successful retrospective at the University of Maine in 2017, but his current exhibit of recent work at William Havu Gallery is his first major solo effort in Colorado since 2008.

In some ways, the fare will look familiar to his long-time fans. The dudes are back, and they've brought their triceps with them. Still, they can't escape the difficult times, political, social and otherwise, into which they were created. At the tail end of 2020, they can only seem to viewers to be troubled, distracted, frustrated. They rarely look right at you; instead, they seem to be squinting off into the distance, trying to figure things out, waiting for sunnier days.
Some of that concern is immediate. In "All Kinds of Theory," for example, a surfer stands on the edge of a beach and appears to be staring down an intimidating wave. Should he plunge ahead? In "Toll," another sturdy dude in a tank shirt waits by the side of a road, leaning on a guitar case with his thumb out. He just wants a ride.

But Balas doesn't paint scenes that are so simple, nor does he allows us to read them so quickly. Surrounding his male figures here, and often overwhelming them visually, is a swirl of other elements that veer them toward the surreal - disconnected images pulled from comic books or sporting magazines, random portions of text, exaggerated examples of flora, fauna, ocean and atmosphere.
Often, these elements come together as collages, multilayered internal and external landscapes that make no sense at all. They are one part hyper-real, superhuman, a total turn-on; another part full-on fantasy that messes with, and challenges, the very human need to order and make sense of things.

This can go to extremes. "Ledger (Day One)," depicts five male figures floating untethered in a sea of clouds - though it's mostly just their heads and they are clearly not aware of each other's presence on the canvas. Instead, they exist as singular figures, accompanied by mystery elements, like words or numbers, intersecting graphic lines or simple line drawings of houses.
They are full of contemplation, perhaps about where they've come from or where they're going; who really knows? A viewer is left to stare and just feel their concentration, to wonder why their brains appear to hurt.

This ill-at-ease sense defines Balas' work here. And it heightens it, turns it serious. Sometimes this feels overly deliberate, like he's trying to paint heft into the natural salaciousness of presenting raw beauty. If the subject of a painting appears to be an actual thinking person, that certainly takes the focus off his perfect buttocks. Without all of the psychological stuff, these works would evoke something closer to late 20th century gay porn - think white he-men, with a dated, hairless, GQ magazine sense of sexiness, frolicking into the danger zone.
But Balas is better than that, much better, and he's been doing this for awhile, and he's unafraid to let viewers go in any direction they desire. You want to focus on the fact that the taut, lean boxer in the painting "Grant Wood Say to the World Come Out Fighting" is wearing boxing gloves but no pants, go right ahead.
But you can also see him as the young "everyman" taking on the world with a symbolic combination of deep thoughts and a powerful right hook. This is, indeed, how men choose their paths in contemporary life, balancing the physical abilities a sports-crazy, gym-fixated, sex-obsessed world values so highly in them, against the emotional and spiritual strengths they might also develop into personal assets. Balas' perfect men are the guys we all want to be, or that we all fear we will become.
Like with all paintings, the real truths come down to the paint. And this is where Balas makes his strongest points. He has a bold way of capturing shape and shadow, the vagaries of skin tone and sky light. Within a single human subject, flesh can be red, pink, brown, beige, white. A mountain might be green, black and gray all at once.
He's also very good at deploying a variety of media to achieve the look he wants. Works in this exhibit are made with oil, acrylic and enamel paint, ink, pencil and watercolors, and viewers can't always discern which one of those common artistic tools they are looking at in a given work. Balas chooses wisely, naturally, among them; he understands paint, he understands painting.

There's a confidence to all of it that makes you believe what Balas is saying, to go along on these journeys into make-it-or-break-it manhood.
It's easy for Balas' critics - and he has them - to get stopped by the smooth skin on the surface of these paintings, to drown in a moat of testosterone before getting to the other side of what the pieces have to offer.
And it is true that sex sells, and it surely sells Balas' work. If his subjects had an abundance of back hair or needed to lose 10 pounds would they be any less effective? That is an unanswerable question, but let's turn it around: If Botticelli's smoking hot "Venus" had been a plus-size model, would we still be gazing upon her 535 years after she was born? Balas' choices are logical, helpful, legit.

This body of work at Havu Gallery is accomplished and evolved, and never as stripped down as it might seem.


Ray Mark Rinaldi, A&E Critic

Denver Post fine arts critic Ray Mark Rinaldi is a veteran journalist covering
classical music, visual art, opera, dance and more.


Jack Balas, 2018; ALL KINDS OF THEORY (#1641); ink and oil on gessoed paper, 22" x 30"


Jack Balas, 2012; TOLL (#741); oil and enamel on canvas, 32" x 28"


Jack Balas, 2018; THE FROST RAILING (Study) (#1565); watercolor, ink and graphite on paper, 30" X 22"


Jack Balas, 2011; KISSING THE MOON (FOR WINSLOW HOMER) (#586); oil and enamel on canvas; 32" x 60"



If you go
The exhibit "Common Ground: Painting for America," with work by Jack Balas continues through Jan. 9, at William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee St. Info at 303-893-2360 or williamhavugallery.com.


ONLINE ADDRESS: https://theknow.denverpost.com/2020/12/06/jack-balas-william-havu-gallery-naked-men-art/250046/