John Armstrong

Mary Balomenos Catch(e)
Gallery 101
, Ottawa, and Galerie Sans Nom, Moncton

Mary Balomenos is an anglophone, second-generation Greek Canadian, who has spent the last ten years developing her painting in Paris, France. This complex cultural situation manifests itself not only physically in her crowded studio filled with paintings, the Greek language textbooks on her desk (she is learning ancient Greek), and her tapes of Greek pop music, but also in the paintings themselves. Here the echoes of the cultures around her — French, Greek, and English — commingle in layered visual and written texts. The paintings in this exhibition, however, first reflect recent European painting: appropriated imagery in the deftly painted miasmas of Sigmar Polke or Bernard Frise come to mind. Balomenos shares with these artists a commitment to the possibility of medium-specific expressivity whose subject is not simply painting itself. The activity of painting provides resistance to, slows down, or relativises the linguistic and cultural sources she has chosen.

Beneath each painting is an independent canvas with three fragments of written texts in their original language — French, ancient Greek, and English — taken from: Roland Barthes' 1957 essay, “The World of Wrestling”; Homer's the Iliad; and a 1967 British scientific manual, Textbook of Fish Culture. These texts have in large part suggested the images Balomenos has used in the paintings to which they are connected. Painted versions of still photographs of professional wrestling taken from television refer to Barthes' Structuralist analysis of this 'popular cultural' activity. To represent the Iliad, bird’s-eye views of the siege of Troy are combined with renderings of a somewhat stiff portrait bust of Homer which Balomenos drew as a teenager. The illustrations found in Textbook of Fish Culture are more or less faithfully reproduced. Although the fragments of written texts are the source for the visual information in the paintings, and they subsequently cast oblique meaning upon the reading of the pictures, there is no hierarchy of word and image. The literary does not caption the visual.

The cultural, linguistic, and temporal origins of these literary sources allow for a subtle play of difference and rhyme. In his writing, Barthes investigates the choreography of wrestling as language and fiction through a semiotic methodology. Balomenos has not presented the intricacies of his analysis: only the theoretical voice is present. From the contrived struggle of the professional wrestler we move to martial feats in the Iliad, and the struggle against the Fates. The Iliad was first passed on in oral tradition before being recorded in ancient Greek; Homer is but the putative author. The detachedness of the mythic voice within Homer may be, in part, mirrored in the voice-of-God technical instruction given in Textbook of Fish Culture. The reduction of the fishes' life cycle, environment, and reproductive functions to quantifiable and monitored factory production reiterates a motif of authority found in each of the sources; authority realised in the power of analysis, transcendental prescience, or scientific knowledge. The paintings do not editorialise, but the several references to controlled fertilization and harvesting in the diagrams of fish farming underscore the absence of a woman's voice in these spliced narratives. One aspect of difference for the artist then, is her dis/connection with the assumptions made in these reflections of culture about her.

Images in the paintings and paper works float in thick, tinted layers of acrylic medium, collapsing in and out of the seldom-hidden whiteness of the canvas ground. The medium appears caustic, dissolving form in what would, in historical painting, be called light-filled atmospheric perspective. (Photographic reproduction of these paintings is difficult.) The fading and partial erasure of the imagery is achieved through repeated washing out with water and medium, making the artist appear parsimonious — giving us an image and then taking it away. Sustained viewing of these paintings is rewarded with more information; what appears first to be an abstracted, mottled ground coalesces into a representation. The play of illusion is interrupted by the presence of crushed coal, ground stone, and chalks in the paint which call attention to the surface and materiality of the painting. Imaging is achieved in a number of ways: the wrestling passages are large, barely-obvious, superimposed negatives in painted light washes; other marks are made autographically with brushes and charcoal, or are transfered by carbon copying and printing. A heterogeneity of style and delivery in the facture of the painting comments upon and orders our perception of the cultural phenomena she has depicted.

In historical painting, insistence on paint handling and extreme conditions of light have been used as signifiers of a romanticised transcendental. In Balomenos' work these cues are very present, but rather than directly indicating the spiritual, they half conceal the distant or near cultural past. Neither in these representations of the received culture in which Balomenos finds herself, nor in the vocabulary of rendering techniques and borrowed styles which she uses do we sense the presence of the artist as a unified subject. Balomenos has carefully crafted her painting and a reading of the self — in doubt and through partial glimpses

“Mary Balomenos: Catch(e).” C Magazine 33 (Spring 1992).