Blow: an exhibition by Jo-Anne Balcaen
at eyelevel gallery, Halifax, NS
Lance Blomgren, January 2001 (unpublished)
In the final scene of James Joyce’s story “Araby”, there’s a moment when the main character, a boy at his first small-town bazaar, comes face-to-face with the plaintive reality of his own desires. Amidst the huckster vendors and their gaudy wares, the boy experiences the melancholic thud of disillusionment as the pathetic façade of the situation becomes apparent and the carnival is revealed for what it is: a cheap reference to happiness, a sad nod to the exotic allure of the gypsy bazaar. In this moment the boy is overcome with emptiness as he realizes his own desires are little more than fodder for these down-and-out traveling salespeople. He longs to be swept up in the fantasy of the situation but is no longer able.
It is within this moment of empty disillusionment that Blow, the recent balloon-sculpture by Montreal-based artist Jo-Anne Balcaen, situates itself. Comprised of dozens of brightly coloured balloons that bulge ridiculously from the wall into a vague heart-shape, Blow strikes an uneasy balance between cheery eagerness and pathetic half-failures. Enticingly cute, this piece cuts a laughably enthusiastic pose that conjures up the titillating expectation - and the ultimate disappointment - of junior high school dances, rental-hall family reunions, and failed birthday parties. Indeed, the exaggerated gaiety of the sculpture quickly gives way to an underlying sense of sadness and desperation and, in the end, Blow, conveys a temperament akin to someone who’s trying too hard for attention, the mounting anxiety of someone witnessing his or her own authentic desires become pathetic.
Ultimately, Blow is a work of subtleties. Much of the power of the piece emerges from the tension between a surprising playfulness of the object and the kitsch sentimentality of the materials. Avoiding the risk of becoming mere ironic commentary - a quality that often creeps into work that deals so openly with kitsch - Blow manages a light touch that keeps the viewer closer to the fantasy of the piece rather than the vulgarity of its allusion to commodified emotions. Blow succeeds in immersing the viewer in the emotive space between expectation and let-down, fantasy and reality, not just merely representing it.