Derek Balmer likes to surprise himself, to challenge preconceptions and tried-and-tested solutions. He doesn’t want his work to be expected or to look predictable: he wants to find it as exciting as the viewer does.
To this end, he constantly explores the threshold of figuration and abstraction, deriving his raw material from reconnaissance trips abroad, to the seats of ancient civilizations (Tarquinia and Pompeii are favourite places), and to landscapes inflamed by the sun. Back in his Bristol studio, memories of foreign travel are transformed and distilled into abstracted images suggesting architecture or landscape, but also dealing largely with the formal components of painting: line, colour, shape and the gloriously inexhaustible properties of oil paint.
Patrick Heron expressed it rather well: ‘I believe painting exists precisely in order to relate our subjective experience, our feelings, to our objective setting, to the world we are endlessly observing’, he wrote. ‘In painting, merely to observe is to subscribe to the heresy of realism; and merely to project a rhythm is to subscribe to the opposite heresy of nonfiguration.
Great painting lies between the two and performs the functions of both.’ This is what Balmer does: relates his feelings about a specific place through a painted structure which uses colour as the dominant means of articulating the paint surface and creating an illusion of three-dimensionality. While Balmer’s paintings might at first glance appear flat, they actually weave an intriguing patchwork of spatial relationships across the picture plane, punctuating (as it were) the surface of the canvas with oases and mirages of distant delight.
He aims at a formal translation of visual response, but he doesn’t want it to be too controlled and restricted. Chance must also play its part, and he avoids the formulaic by courting serendipity and anything that will fire his imagination. His work operates between two kinds of reality - the visual reality of the building or landscape observed and gloried in, and the pictorial reality of its transcription on canvas. The painting represents the moment when these two different realities are made to coincide through the individual lens of the artist’s temperament.
Nature is the starting point, and then the principal(and loaded) question is whether an emptying out or a gathering in follows. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, but most important is to see the options clearly in order to take full advantage of what he calls the ‘constant spur of revelation’.
Balmer works all over the canvas, providing multiple focal points for the eye to be drawn to. In fact, looking at a Balmer painting is an intensely active and exacting process. The eye does not so much settle in one place as dart about like a butterfly over a delectable flowerbed, gathering information and aesthetic pleasure in a dozen places and relating them in the mind’s eye.
The act of looking is about trying to find a way in to his complex imagery. Meaning and energy are channelled through the painter during the shaping of a picture.
Art is a totality of experience, for both artist and viewer, to be understood not just by the mind, but by the emotions and the body too.
As he works over a painting, altering and adapting, re-charging the emphases, removing passages of imagery, inserting others, pursuing the arbitrary mark with the intended, Balmer likes to draw over and into the paint with charcoal, a device much favoured by Roger Hilton in the 1950s. Balmer makes of this tactic something poignant, as a newly imposed linearity joins the orchestration of coloured shapes on the canvas. Sometimes the over-drawing, coming at a late stage of the painting’s evolution, is the final element which leads to resolution. His procedure is essentially a pursuit of chance: making one mark and then an answering mark, following the paint until reaching the point at which he seizes control, resolves the painting and it comes to an end.
(He says: ‘A painting is never finished. You just have to learn to let it go.’) He doesn’t often use black or brown, and is suspicious of ‘English’ green, which to him speaks far too readily of home counties trees and fields.
His landscapes tend to be hotter: African or Mediterranean, joyous with colour and light. His application of paint varies from lightly stained areas where the paint is thinned with turps, to tache and dab, stripe and overlay, even crusty impasto. There is something here of the Simultanism of Robert Delaunay, great pioneer of abstraction in early 20th century Paris, with its concurrent presentation of different elements, multiple points of view, and contrasting time-scales.
Balmer also admires the bold abstract visions of John Hoyland and Gillian Ayres, both artists of deep inner conviction and technical expertise who continually strove to reinvent their painterly responses to the visual world. Balmer credits their example with bringing home to him the crucial importance and seriousness of colour.
After a lifetime of experience and experiment, of learning what will work and what will not - often by a process of trial and error - many artists in their maturity allow themselves a certain stylistic freedom.
Derek Balmer is one such painter. For example, Rabat (Desert Garden) is full of bounce and flirty curves, the paint laid on with a subtle hand in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes and textures, mixed and layered on the canvas in fruitful profusion.
Balmer is witty and self-deprecating about his late style of ‘anything goes’. He likens his paintings to ‘out-of-control jigsaws - I don’t know what the word simple means’. Yet he makes an eventual harmony of his instinctively structured explorations, he pulls their disparate complexity together into a new unity at the last possible moment, else the picture is a failure. And it is precisely this high-risk strategy which gives his painting its edge and savour.
As I have written elsewhere, art should be a movement of the spirit. In Derek Balmer’s new paintings, the movement is both clear and persuasive.