by e.c. woodley

TORONTO Known for her language-based work in several mediums, Barbara Balfour is also a master printer who has collaborated with Komar and Melamid, Leon Golub, Robert Indiana and David Rabinowitch. In her remarkable 39-lithograph installation, Living & Dying (2010), Balfour used her considerable craft to put to rest any thoughts of printmaking’s obsolescence in an increasingly de-skilled, post-medium art scene. Most of the prints (each approximately 15 by 21 inches) were arranged in tight grids on two large wooden tables positioned beside each other lengthwise on the worn and paint-splattered floor (the gallery is sited in a late-19th-century industrial building); there were also spare sequences hung on the walls. Overall, Living & Dying evoked a robust print shop environment. Yet each print’s text was rendered in a fountain pen-like cursive that evokes the domestic intimacy of letter writing.

Balfour has previously used a computer program to create fonts based on her own handwriting, but here she subtly conflated early forms of mechanical type and handwritten script without digital aid. Each line of text is composed of the word living repeated until it is replaced by the word dying, which continues on until reaching the irregular edge of the paper. This sequence begins again, the next line down, until the sheet is filled.

It is tempting to think of Balfour’s text masses in relation to Carl Andre’s typed concrete poetry. Andre’s idea of poetry as language mapped on some aspect of the visual arts such as painting, as articulated in a 1970 interview, can be directly applied to Balfour’s work. As in Andre’s poetry, Balfour’s words have a formal, material independence. Seen from a distance, her expanses of language optically contract until they look like furrows in a plowed field. But the texts are also transformed by vertical bands of color that Balfour has printed over them, resulting in compositions that are ultimately less like Andre’s, which he described as being filled with discrete particles of language, than they are a broadly luminous terrain in which language continuously materializes and dematerializes.

Balfour’s colors are especially difficult to name. They can be beautifully indirect and intensely delicate. In some works, she uses columns of a creamlike color to bisect the compositions, so that swaths of the text initially appear effaced. But on closer inspection the cursive writing can be discerned, having taken on the cream pigment in a slight relief effect. The muted words seem to float, giving the viewer an eerie feeling of reading blankness or absence. One lithograph, a color field of black writing yielding to a blue band that suggests a diffuse Barnett Newman zip, transmits an elegiac, memorial quality. The entire installation glowed with a gentle, almost translucent light, proposing a place beyond or before words, despite being largely formed of them.

Photo: Barbara Balfour: Living & Dying (detail), 2010, lithography on Japanese gampi paper, 1512 by 21 inches overall; at YYZ Artists’ Outlet.