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Sydney Artist comes to Wassaic Project

by Antonia Shoumatoff
Wed Dec 30th, 2015

Balmain making a movie in Joel Foster's studio in Wassaic

You never know who you will meet in the streets of Wassaic, especially around Christmas when things seem desolate and deserted and most of the Brooklyn hipsters are off to faraway places and warmer climes.  But peeking out of a cool backpack was the tiny face of a baby called Otto and we were able to strike up a conversation with his father, an artist resident from Australia, Justin Balmain, who has been at the Wassaic Project for the month of December.

Mr. Balmain teaches painting and art theory at the National Art School in Sidney and was co-director of Australia’s longest running artists’ collective, Firstdraft Gallery. He majored in painting at university and has exhibited widely in Australia.  His work is described as “an attempt to consider visual possibilities of painting through new forms and mediums” by the Sidney Guild.

Linguistic symbols, film, installation technology and emoticons are some of the media he has recently worked with as media to project his work.  In speaking of a recent exhibit of video work in a very large space he says:

“I wanted to rethink what I was doing with my visual practice through an installation environment.  I don’t really think of myself as an installation artist but the way a work is situated is extremely important for the public.”

Balmain now does installation consulting for various venues.  The way he came to the U.S. this year is through his partner, Amelia Wallin, who has been working for the past few months on the NYC-based arts organization called Performa’s biennial.  Performa was started by the former curator of the Kitchen and stages performance events in venues around the city. 

Landing in Wassaic happened because Balmain wanted to find an arts residency which accepted families.  The Wassaic Project is one of the few residencies which provides space for artists with children.

In one of his recent exhibits the artist animated Emoticons [the little faces that people use to express emotions in their texts and e-mails] to depict a scene from a Mike Nichols film.   The emoticon faces act as stand-ins for the actors in a scene where two lovers are breaking up with each other.  The voices are robotic and the effect is both funny and a sad statement on the state of contemporary communication.

“I arrived at film through being a painter.  Film never felt tactile to me and I wanted to attempt to create tactility through film,” he explains.

Balmain describes how he worked experimentally with a young filmmaker shooting a piece that was exhibited on two perpendicular screen of a man and a woman running through a shopping mall arcade.  On one screen the man runs in a clockwise direction, on the other screen a woman runs through the same ground, except in a counter-clockwise direction.  The piece is called “In case we would never meet.”

It is fascinating to see how young artists in Australia use the same vernacular that young artists in America use, even though they have never met or gone to the same art schools.  The vernacular of such things as emoticons, abbreviated language symbols and large scale photography installed on huge walls all seem to be forms that artists worldwide are using to express a sense of connection and lack of connection. These elements depict the challenges of communication in a cyber-world that leaves people feeling more alienated albeit more connected to their generational commonality.

In another recent installation piece, Balmain uses the zero symbol for silence, a zero with a slash through  it.  “I wanted to show the poetic thread that we have as sound, speech and communication is also silence.”

In a review in The Art Life, an Australian online art journal, Stella Rosa McDonald writes: “Balmain begins by asking the question, “Why do we speak?” The script touches upon the implausible—yet common—practice of trademarking common words and phrases which then reenter the vernacular anew: face, book and even entities like the sky. The shaky legitimacy of language, the foundations of its power and influence and the history of its reason play out on the screen…This visual essay invites re-reading as it examines the semantics of contemporary relationships to conclude that there cannot be meaning without silence.”

Balmain says that he wants to be in Wassaic and experience the place as much as he can and that he has been filming extensively inside the studio of an older artist who works in Wassaic.

“I am not thinking about an audience or any point of view but I try to make work that has multiple layers.  I want an audience who has no idea of the history of art or contemporary art to feel welcome within that space so it becomes a mutual exploration.” 

Justin’s projects are supported by Arts NSW's NSW Artists' Grant Scheme, a devolved funding program administered by the National Association for the Visual Arts on behalf of the NSW Government.