Jacqueline Balassa

Jacqueline Balassa figures the landscapes which captivate her as jewel-like scenes of pattern, intricacy, and delicate beauty. With traditions from the Italian Renaissance to Chinese mountain-water painting in mind – and a fine brush and magnifying glass in hand – she transfigures these landscapes into scenes where the “ornamental” and the truly meaningful are one and the same.

The scenes in Balassa’s exhibition Waterfalls and Carol’s Garden are taken from two distinct locations: the wild bush garden of a neighbour, Carol, in Sydney’s Middle Harbour, and the national parks throughout the US which the artist visited some years ago. Carol’s garden is a site of familiarity, habit, and affection for Balassa. For working on the garden series of paintings, Balassa chose three particular, and distinct, locations: a small natural pond, a rainforest on the other side of the garden, and a clearing looking over to Echo Point, bordered by beehives. The national parks, in many ways, represent a sort of opposite to these garden environs – in their sense of scale, in their geo-political and visual foreignness to the artist, and in their popular image as sites of “untouched” nature, in opposition to the bush garden’s more liminal status as a place half “natural” and half “made.” 

The surfaces of Balassa’s paintings work overtime. They make us hot and cold, they figure emotion, movement, breadth, and depth, they convey (or confer) character, and they twist and turn beneath the eye. In Pond and Waterfall, a low stream curls tenderly into the body of water below, as if beckoning us closer, while the rock face beneath it – rendered in a pattern of organic, irregular shapes – dares us to guess at its number of faces. In Eucalypts Shedding their Bark, layers of foliage from the foreground to the horizon are packed in to the lower half of the picture with tight, curled brushstrokes, while repeated dot-work makes the river behind them feel at once here, now, and rushing energetically away from us. 

Balassa’s embrace of finely-wrought patterning (a seemingly decorative mode of mark making) across both of her chosen environments, however, deftly troubles our habitual distinctions between the “natural” and the “made.” One of pattern’s functions for Balassa is as an interpretive and expressive tool. She sees it as capable of capturing some of the subjectivity of any artist’s or observer’s relationship with their surroundings – which is also to say, with the environment that, to some degree, constitutes that very artistic or observing self. “I invent equivalences in pattern to interpret what I observe in nature,” she says. “In this way, I try to make sense of the complexity of the natural world and to communicate my experience of it.” Pattern is also, though, a formal device through which the vast “wilderness” and the “composed” form of the garden can both be made sense of along the plane of the painting. “The garden,” as she explains “is usually more obviously shaped by human interaction and thus can be more ‘composed’ with interesting rhythms, spaces, textures, and patterns seen up close. The vaster landscape, for me, requires a higher degree of simplification to deal with the ‘near’ and ‘far.’”

Patterning is also, for Balassa, a practice of love: both for the places she pictures and for the materials that she pictures them with. She describes gouache, an especially favoured medium, in language both tactile and beyond the sensible: “I love gouache because of its look: soft, pure and bright, with colours that sing and a beautiful surface texture. I also love the process of working with it. It is a very precise medium and can be extremely delicate. The brushmarks can be both well defined and almost invisible. It feels like drawing in paint because it dries immediately.” 

This last observation is an important one for Balassa, given the complex layers of precision and intuition which make up her method as a whole. She describes that “I begin with small plein air pencil drawings. Back in the studio I use these as references for larger finished drawings, allowing the composition to develop intuitively as I work. I then accurately transfer a copy of a drawn image to the painting surface using a tracing process. Of course, when colour and paint become involved, everything changes completely. My colour palette for each painting evolves as I work, gradually building up the layers of paint. I use very fine brushes and a magnifying glass to achieve delicacy and precision.”

These paintings, and those which will show with Art Atrium at Sydney Contemporary, emerge from the care with which Balassa observes and inhabits her environment, and from her sharp attention to traditions from the Italian Renaissance – Giotto, Duccio, Veneziano, and Fra Angelico – to Chinese water-mountain painting, which she studied first-hand on a trip to China in 2018.  Like the environments that she works with and within, Balassa’s paintings are (re)generative. They take the historical and visual material that composes them, and make from it something new, and open: a glittering series of spatial and conceptual questions always just outnumbering the answers we can give to them.

Waterfalls and Carol’s Garden
20 August – 3 September 2022
Art Atrium, Sydney 

Art Atrium at Sydney Contemporary 
8–11 September 2022
Carriageworks, Sydney

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