By Ramona Martinez
The 11 wood sculptures that make up Renee Balfour’s “New Work” at McGuffey Art Center have a haunting stillness. Hung around the main gallery, some white and some unpainted, they are reminiscent of bones and fossilized plants—like prehistoric objects suspended in time. The exhibition is full of contradictions, or maybe polarities: seemingly organic, yet meticulously constructed; static yet full of movement; terrestrial yet otherworldly. More amazing still is that Balfour is a self-taught woodworker who has only been sculpting for four years.
She has, however, been a painter for over three decades. A mentor to rising artists like Madeleine Rhondeau, Balfour is an important presence at McGuffey. Her painting, like her sculpture, is nature- based: Plants and flowers are painted so close up, they become abstractions. But these are no colorful Georgia O’Keeffes—the colors in Balfour’s paintings are melancholic, dark and earthen. The muted tones make us focus on the strength of the movement and the light. And there is an eeriness to her early work. An unsettled feeling that these abstracted plants are alive in a different way, perhaps unnaturally or supernaturally.
Balfour translates this vibe into her three-dimensional “New Work.” “Embrace,” assembled from painted poplar, was inspired by a cow skeleton found on a beach. Two long contours of white wood are parallel, with curved, rib-like cuts wrapping into one another. Next to it, “First Water” is also mammalian, although the kind of mammal isn’t clear. That’s another interesting element to this work: The compositions reference natural forms, but they are not of this world. “Her Thoughts Became Her Sanctuary,”—a large, walnut cocoon of a piece, with curved bands up the center— looks half plant, half mammal. It really doesn’t matter ultimately, because like her paintings, the experience is not trying to determine the content or reference Balfour is using, but rather to enjoy the abstraction—the way the different shapes interact with one another and create movement within the composition.
The process of making each piece is very labor intensive. Each composition, in part, depends on the natural contours of the wood. But Balfour also creates her own shapes by laminating slabs of wood together, and carving out pieces with a band saw. Even the tiny ribs that are featured in many of the works are cut from larger laminated blocks.
“You know, the one thing about painting, you put on a paint stroke and you don’t like it, you paint it out. Here, if I don’t like the way one piece is moving, then I have to re-cut it,” says Balfour. “Drawing it out is one thing, but when you actually get into the three-dimensional aspects of it, things change very quickly. It makes them somewhat improvisational.”
The haunting quality of the show also comes from the lighting, done in collaboration with artist Scott Smith. The cast shadows are a key component of the work, Balfour says, filling compositional voids. She experiments with different lighting schemes in her woodshop before they are displayed in the gallery. “It’s the subtle shifting of the light that changes the shadows. And it also changes the color of the shadows,” says Balfour. While lighting the show, she says some of the shadows surprised her with their complexity. Thematically, this makes sense—exposed to light, her work undergoes a natural mutation. “All the pieces are designed in a way that the shadows are an extension of the piece,” she says, allowing the viewer to go deeper as a shape-shifting secondary characteristic of the static object emerges.