Often called “the city that never sleeps,” New York is alive, never resting, always in motion. Like the city itself, Paul Balmer’s recent paintings buzz with a constant, irrepressible life force. His vibrant cityscapes are rendered with a tenderness that gives them palpable character, as if buildings were figures rather than towers of cold steel. His almost child-like fascination with the city is evidenced by his use of bold color and simple shape, while the textured surfaces of his works evince his unwavering devotion to craft.
After spending several years working in illustration and advertising in Africa, Australia, and America, Balmer’s passion for art took him to Europe. He eventually found himself venturing clear across the planet to New York where he found a metropolis like no other he had ever experienced, bursting with endlessly intriguing juxtapositions of color, texture, scale, and form. “New York is all about contrasts,” he says. “Open areas versus congestion, small buildings up against tall skyscrapers, decayed surfaces suddenly taking on a sleek modern sheen. It is the most exciting place I have ever been.”
This world of contrasts continues to serve as an inexhaustible source for Balmer’s work and has found expression on canvas after canvas. “The shapes,” he says, “come as unexpectedly as color combinations. I get all my inspiration from walking around the city and documenting it through sketches and photographs, not just of buildings, but also of textures and colors. Even on the grayest of days, I relish getting out onto the streets.”
Balmer’s subject matter is the cityscape, but he in no way depicts it as it is seen by the naked eye. Rather, he captures a mood, feeling or impression of the city and the farther his paintings fall into abstraction, the more successful he feels it is. In a recent interview, he describes the turning point when he made the transition from figurative to abstract painting:
I was teaching in Switzerland and had many opportunities to travel around Europe, to Paris mostly, to paint Neoclassical architecture. This kicked off 5 years of painting realistic figurative work. It was when I moved to New York that it all changed. I wanted to represent not only the building and scale of New York, but also the atmosphere and the craziness of the place. I started drawing this city without worrying about perspective. I flattened some surfaces that would usually have more depth and added textured areas to represent the “feel” of Manhattan. It was not only more fun to do, but also more spontaneous and somewhat subconscious.
Balmer’s studio is in the Singer Building on Broadway at Prince Street and he also uses a temporary 10,000 square-foot space on Broome and Wooster that is flooded with natural light. He currently exhibits his work around the corner on West Broadway at the Campton Gallery, but has also exhibited widely in the U.S., England, Australia, South Africa and the Netherlands.
It was Balmer’s long-time dream to have a studio in SoHo, the neighborhood where so many of his “mentors” began their careers. Basquiat had a studio on Crosby Street and then on Grand Street. SoHo’s history also loomed large in his imagination as a place that was a hotbed of creative foment in the 1960’s, where artists lived next door to galleries through the 1970’s into the 80’s. Leo Castelli, the art dealer who represented de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Pollock, and Johns, among others, opened a gallery on West Broadway in 1971.
Balmer’s dream has been fully realized, due to his hard work, perseverance, and, of course, his raw talent. He is the most serious of artists, always thinking, working, creating. It is thus destiny that brought him to a city that is always thinking, working, creating, the city that never sleeps. Paul Balmer makes it look easy, however, as if his work appears organically, almost by accident. “Letting accidents happen,” he says, “is the fine line between craftsmanship and freedom.”
For further information: www.paulbalmer.com
Cleveland, David. PAUL BALMER CITYSCAPES. Concord, MA: Capital Offset, 2011. Hardcover / 216 pages
This post is an excerpt from an article by Yukie Ohta entitled “New York City as Mentor and Muse” that appeared in the February 2013 issue of SoHo Life Magazine.