Blue Granados 2007 Harriet Moore Ballard

Views with a Room

Every painting is a balancing act performed on the monkey bars of color and composition.
And equally, each is assembled, puzzle-like, from bits and pieces of an artist’s life. In
Harriet Moore Ballard’s complex, richly layered, ultimately mysterious paintings, the events
of a life and the actions of painting float together, as if on or just below the surface of a
clear stream.

At various times in her life Ballard has lived for extended periods in Istanbul and London,
and these days divides each year between Cleveland and the Mexican arts Mecca, San
Miguel de Allende. Hints of all these places merge on her brightly moody surfaces. The
influence of the great British artist Ben Nicholson, whose work she encountered long ago
during a seven year stint in England, has been especially important to the development of
Ballard’s own vocabulary. Early in his career Nicholson’s paintings reflected an interest in
British folk art and motifs. Later he was introduced to the Abstraction – Creation movment
of the early 1930’s. Eventually dynamically layered rectangles evolved into more
expressive, personality-laden images, impacting other British painters of the 1940’s and
1950’s, notably Francis Bacon. Both of these tendencies are still legible in Ballard’s work,
where simple line drawings of natural and man made objects, sometimes accompanied by
handwritten words or phrases, are blended into a system of semi- transparent passages,
like the reflections of windows against a wall. But Nicholson is only one of the starting
points of Ballard’s explorations. Hints of Georges Braques, Henri Matisse, and the
dimensional conceits of synthetic cubism are sometimes visible along with a general
concern for Modernist values, especially the expression of aesthetic space as a marker
for the passage of time; in such works art becomes a kind of clock.

In Ballard’s show at Bonfoey’s, titled Order and Chaos, the ticking of this kind of subjective
time is almost audible. The twenty paintings and collages on view include a little bit of
many things, from grid-like passages that resemble checkerboards in aquamarine and
magenta -- or apple green and pink or dark blue and brown – to the sudden loose
geometric form unfolding out of nothingness in the center of the painting titled Caldera
like a jack-in-the-box. There are views that have the bright sun and deep shade of a
Mexican afternoon as gourd-like shapes linger along the margins of an eternal present.

The painting Kopjes, on the other hand, takes its title from outcroppings of granite and
gneiss that occur an ocean away from the Americas on the Serengeti Plains. Technically
known as inselbergs, Ballard saw these cracked, immemorially ancient fortresses of
volcanic rock on a recent trip to Africa, each a mini-ecosystem with its own flora and
extraordinary fauna. Rather than rendering such a scene, Ballard uses the idea of
isolated areas of extraordinary composition rising into view at intervals as a metaphor for
her own approach to material and imagery. Ballard seems to jump from color to color,
image to image, as she slowly constructs a fragile passage to the true homeland of her
own varied experience. She proposes and erases, balances, juggles, and adjusts in works
that are always full of movement. Some rush upwards toward a corner, others achieve a
state of vibrating poise, stopped for a moment on the verge of disintegration.

The mixed media work on unstretched canvas titled Caldera may be Ballard’s riskiest work
to date. About six feet tall, the relatively monochromatic drawing involves collage and
transparent sheets of plastic as well as many intricate passages of ink wash. Circles and
words, well-worn stains and sinuous lines generate a sense of time, of rains and marks of
travelling separated by dry centuries. It’s a portrait of Ballard’s African experience,
something like the images of the primordial rock paintings also located in the Serengeti, at
once familiar and indecipherable. The title itself alludes to the Ngorongoro crater in
Tanzania, which is the caldera (Spanish “cauldron”) of an ancient volcano, the largest
formation of its kind in the world.

While Ballard’s rich, almost chaotic mix of images, words, and textures could be seen
collectively  as a sort of caldera or aftermath of internal activity, the overall tone of her
recent paintings is cool. This is true I think not only of their tonal temperature, consisting
often of dominate blues and greens, but also of their temperament which seems if
anything refreshingly serene. The order that Ballard strives to bring to the fragmentary
nature of perception is one that partakes of the joys of the earth, expressing a deep
satisfaction with the beauty of life as she resolves and tames the tensions she discovers.

Blue Granados, for instance, is simply, unabashedly lovely. This is all the more impressive
since it is not at all a simple painting in terms either of its internal organization, or the
visual dissonance of dark umbers and deep blues that Ballard chooses as the dominant
notes of the piece. As an image Blue Granados is intensely musical, referring (I think) to
early twentieth century Spanish composer Enrique Granados’ signature piano suite
Goyescas, with its sweeping, dark passages. Among Ballard’s usually colorful paintings
this work is a blue period all its own, daring to overtly emulate Braque, Matisse, Gris, and
of course Picasso, as it goes about its own business of solving the dilemma of blue vs
brown. A vase of flowers tilts up to the right, a splash of orange nestles like a captive sun
rise just in the center; a bowl of oval shapes in shades of creamy taupe is deployed as
one sort of transition, while a blue and cream checkerboard pattern abuts the upward-
thrusting planes, the table tops of Modernism laden with a palette of grays and ochers,
sweeter tones of blue and bluer samples of green.

Despite their evocations of far-flung climes most of Ballard’s works seem to take place
indoors or on a terrace – more views with a room than the reverse, since a deep interiority
is their most constant element. In Blue Granados the chamber of awareness that is the
self closes against the brightly crowded scenes of Africa or Mexico, melting in a universal

[Free Times 10/31/07]