Water and solutions

S.F. artist Chris Ballantyne can say a lot in few brush strokes

Courtesy of University Art Gallery

Chris Ballantyne’s paintings may seem bare and quirky, but the message he is trying to convey is not that simple.

The 34-year-old artist likes to suggest a situation and leave the story open for interpretation. Ballantyne purposely creates an “uneasy sense of quiet” through his art.

“It’s about a sense of isolation or a kind of distance,” he said over the phone.

The biggest challenge in his latest exhibition at Chico State’s University Art Gallery, was trying to pull his work together.

“My subjects are disparate,” he said. “Once I get a few pieces done, I start to think about the show as a whole and how I want the gallery and art to work together.”

Although Ballantyne doesn’t spend day and night painting and making art, he describes the process as “ongoing.” His work is on permanent display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and his Curious Lights exhibition was shown at Peres Projects in Berlin.

Ballantyne has invested four years in the pieces featured in the current exhibition The Drift: Paintings and Drawings. The works include a scaled-down architectural model of a watchtower, which will offer a reference point in this exhibition. “It’s about the perspective from which you look at the art,” he explained.

The majority of Ballantyne’s art is from an aerial perspective. “Jetty With Surfers” is an acrylic painting of four surfers waiting for a wave. With 17 years of surfing under his belt, Ballantyne said he likes to incorporate the sense of expectancy into his paintings. “At some point, we’re all waiting for something.”

Courtesy of University Art Gallery

Whether there are waves, drains, or pools, water is a recurring element in Ballantyne’s work. “It’s the one element that connects everything,” he said. “Water is personal and has a spiritual quality.”

Growing up in a military family, Ballantyne has lived in Texas, Florida and California. One similarity in the cities where he’s lived, besides being coastal, was suburban life. He draws inspiration from the everyday components of the suburbs, like fences and pools that seem straightforward. But the complexity emerges when Ballantyne’s intentions become clear.

His use of American landscape creates what Ballantyne refers to as a “cerebral landscape.” Now living in San Francisco, Ballantyne said moving to an urban area helped to develop his sensibility.

“Intersecting Gates” is Ballantyne’s acrylic and water painting interpretation of the intersection of yards. “We’re in our bubble here in the U.S.,” Ballantyne said.

War has also subtly filtered into Ballantyne’s work. “Your yard and the borders of your yard are like our country, just scaled down.”

One of Ballantyne’s goals is to “provide subtle commentary about our obsession with land ownership and domination—of the land, and of each other on suburban life and the manipulation and domination of land.”

The manipulation of land to build backyard pools is something Ballantyne finds peculiar, and he illustrates the oddity in “Container, Space, and Volume". The three objects in the painting are a large kidney-shaped pool, a kidney-shaped ditch and a subsequent pile of dirt next to the ditch. It’s eerie, quiet and complex—all at the same time. “It’s an unnatural kind of void,” he said.

“Parking Lot (Landing strip)”, another painting, is Ballantyne’s way of exaggerating empty space. The painting depicts a parking lot and light posts but not any cars.

“Sometimes emptiness takes up more space than we think,” he said.

Ballantyne doesn’t want to send one kind of message through his art. Instead, he suggests a situation that is complex, sometimes empty, or that has more of a human element when explored deeper.

“It’s about people and the relationship with their surroundings,” he said. “I don’t try to convey an environmental message; it’s more social and cultural.”