Beneath the Mask

Getting Naked with Jennifer Balkan

Words by Jess Hagemann  Photos by Ashley Haguewood

Neuroscience, mental illness, oil painting, and the carnivalesque: which one doesn’t belong? Actually, you’ll find all these themes and more in Jennifer Balkan’s impressionistic artwork, which colors the walls of her Cherrywood studio and hangs in galleries as far away as Denver, CO and Charleston, SC.

Perennially fascinated by “how the mind works, and the physiological basis for human behaviors,” Balkan first studied neuroscience at Lehigh University, before pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at UT-Austin. In between, she served the mentally-ill and developmentally disabled populations in Seattle, an experience that further fed her lifelong obsession with conceptual ‘masks.’

A New Jersey native, Balkan grew up wandering the boardwalks of Coney Island, in love with both the arcade and the arcane: clowns and carnies and sideshow attractions. She felt equally attracted to the bright lights and the dark underbelly of that world, a living fantasy in which nothing was ever as it seemed. The entertainers of her childhood wore masks, and curious, she wondered what they hid. As an adult, she would draw the comparison to the way that ordinary people wear masks every day—invisible masks that separate a person from his/her social persona, donned at the very moment they roll out of bed in the morning.

By contrast, in Seattle Balkan was struck by the fact that individuals with mental illness or developmental disabilities are incapable of wearing these psychic masks. As the painter puts it, “Quote-unquote ‘normal’ people still deal with emotional problems like depression, but because our neural pathways are in check, we can compartmentalize that stuff and put on a happy face, and only reveal what we want to”—versus the mentally disabled, for whom “all of their inner being is on the surface.” Balkan refers to the “many layers” of thought and emotion that all of us experience and that some of us can consciously choose to display or not. She likens those layers to the thick layers of paint that end up coating her canvases: an attempt to capture the complexity of human nature.

It’s why Balkan paints figures and portraits (rather than landscapes or still-lifes) almost exclusively. “How can I get behind the outer layer … the deepest layer, all the way underneath … to express or evoke emotion through paint?” she asks. Believing that the answer might lie in literally removing as many layers as possible—starting with clothes—in 2008 she began painting a series of masked nudes. Inspired by photographer Spencer Tunick’s Naked States, Balkan variously painted friends, strangers, and hired models completely naked, save for a small ‘disguise’ prop like a clown nose or a zebra-striped hat.

What does nakedness reveal? What is still obscured by masks? All of Balkan’s work tackles these large-form questions in one way or another. Aficionados of the human body and the human mind can find Balkan’s work for sale on her website, or catch her at the annual East Austin Studio Tour.

Native Knowledge:
Jennifer Balkan teaches the only art class in Austin devoted entirely to figure painting. Each session is limited to four students, so sign up fast!

Balkan first learned to paint as a child from her grandmother. She loved the way that oil paints smelled. Despite displaying an early affinity and natural skill for painting, Balkan was strongly encouraged by her family to pursue a more ‘practical’ career. She finally allowed herself to return to her first love in 2001. Since then, Balkan has pieced together an informal art education by studying with teachers around the country.


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