Louise Balaam: The Colour of Light
“The human being himself, to the extent that he makes sound use of his senses, is the most exact physical apparatus that can exist.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Although she has always painted in a wide variety of landscapes – the Kent Marshes, Constable Country, North West Scotland, North Wales and West Cornwall among them – Louise Balaam is not, by any measure, a painter of places nor, for that matter, perhaps, a landscape painter. What really obsesses her are skies and the particularities of light they cast on the landscape beneath them: at the back of her mind you always feel that impassioned injunction of her great artistic hero, John Constable, that it would be “difficult to name any class of landscape in which the sky is not the keynote, the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment.” In many of the cloud studies that followed, Constable either abandoned the landscape beneath altogether or included just the merest smudge of hill- or tree-tops as reference-points, and it is this last motif which Balaam picks up on as point of departure for her own and, it should be said, very distinctly 21st century take on the subject, the pursuit of the colour of light; the landscapes, one feels, are there simply to bounce us back towards the piercing luminosity and mutability of her skies.
And what immediately strikes you when you start to look at her skies more closely is the extraordinary and dynamic balancing act she achieves between the expressive intensity of the brush-strokes – here is a painter who has been looking closely at artists as varied as Peter Lanyon and Joan Eardley, Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell – and the inescapable feeling that here, as Goethe was suggesting, is someone who is indeed “making sound use of their senses”, the “exact physical apparatus” of her acute vision showing us exactly what it looked, and felt like, to be looking up at the sky in that place at that particular moment in time. For, as Goethe also understood so well, very much against the same scientific orthodoxies of his age as ours, looking is both an objective and an impassioned activity – or as Balaam herself puts it, from another angle, “I love the way paint is simultaneously itself, essentially coloured mud while also evoking the space and light of the landscape. Light is the crucial aspect of the emotional impact of the painting.” Or again, in that astonishingly protean English Romantic vision of the great 17th century divine, Thomas Traherne, “Your enjoyment of the world is never right, til every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys... and perceive yourself to be sole heir of the whole world.”
Nicholas Usherwood February 2019