When I am painting, I look for moments that feel specific yet unnamable and both abstract and real. I enjoy the poetry of gestural paint strokes and the harmony of colors speaking to each other. I try to paint the moment when something ordinary becomes sacred, when something that I’ve looked at many times before becomes the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen, and then – quixotically – retreats again to ordinariness. I am left wondering: did the transformation even really happen? - Cat Balco, 2019
In her first solo exhibition in New York, the Connecticut based painter Cat Balco will exhibit her singular, boldly brushed abstractions. Derived from her own large-scale paintings that featured the eternal, radiating shapes of stars, these new works nod to the Abstract Expressionists but are their own insistent compositions, simplified and exploiting the inherent democracy of the square, proclaiming themselves for the fullest attention. Unlike her radial paintings from the past two years which exist within the realm of recognizable forms, the paintings on view here move majestically forward, getting closer to something that feels more vast. They are both respectful of their origins but also newly created, like chunks of icebergs broken from a melting glacier.
Once an observational painter of cityscapes, Balco retreated from painting for a short time, only to pursue it again prior to receiving her MFA from Yale in 2007, ten years after her BA, also from Yale. As her career relaunched, she took off after abstraction. Musing on her family’s American roots as the descendent of European immigrant laborers, she imbued her compositions with evidence of the manual labor of painting, often rotating her canvases, like gears or engines, so that dripping paint seemed to defy gravity to enter from any and all directions. She speaks about her radial paintings as requiring “a unique compositional balancing act of centripetal and centrifugal forces, of gathering to an inner center and expanding/diffusing to the outer space.” The balance of spiritual and material energies remains an important subject of her work. As in her earlier paintings, Balco introduced the drop shadow as a nod to early American painterly amusements involving Trompe L’oeil effects. With this new body of work, Balco has turned further inward, mining her own past works as source material, choosing cropped sections of previous paintings and vastly increasing their scale. She explains, [The] paintings are constructed with a limited sequence of marks – usually about 9 or fewer per painting - that are both gestural and minimal. The works are painted quickly but conceived slowly. Their compositions are distilled from sections of earlier paintings that are themselves distilled from even earlier paintings created before that. Balco sees such self-reflection not as a narcissistic retreat, but as a deep commitment to clearing the vessel.
Her material process has changed as well. To further confound the viewer’s relationship to the scale of the work, she started painting with push brooms, never smaller than 12 inches across, a means used by Ed Clark and others but once again a personal reference to the manual labor of her forebears who worked in Connecticut’s mill town factories. These paintings are bold, ecstatic, personally complex, densely colored and redolent of the physical effort involved in their execution. Despite the scale of the brushes themselves, the broad swaths of their strokes feel delicate, intimate and generous. The relationship to Abstract Expressionism is unmistakable but she is sure to define how she thinks of that movement by describing it as the quintessentially American painting attitude of bravado, that is both inspiring for its celebration of the individual, and troubling for its often macho, aggressive, and colonialist implications. By inviting her ancestry into the studio she reconnects the movement to its working class roots.