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Jack Balas Answers the Male Call

"Semper Fi," by Jack Balas, watercolor on paper.

Jack Balas has built a national reputation the hard way. He lives in a small town in northern Colorado, and his style is a very idiosyncratic version of post-pop that's often messy and crammed with incongruous imagery and text. And if that's not enough, his chief subject matter — the everyman — is a handsome young gym rat.

His models have movie-star faces and perfect physiques, and Balas has observed that he is interested in depicting these beautiful jocks for the same reason Picasso and Matisse painted beautiful women: They provide creative inspiration for him.

Balas chafes at the idea that his work could be seen as merely homoerotic, since there's a lot more going on than the beefcake element. He typically pairs his "Studio Men" with words that add a conceptual twist, and he brings up the history of art from the Renaissance to the Regionalists. Still, the men — rather than enigmatic philosophical issues or arcane art-historical references — undeniably dominate his pictures.

Balas was born in Chicago and grew up in the Back-of-the-Yards section of that city's South Side. While in high school, he became seriously interested in art and taught himself to do watercolors. He earned his BFA and his MFA from Northern Illinois University, and in the early 1980s he moved to Los Angeles, where he met his life partner, Wes Hemphill, an important painter in his own right. In the mid-1980s, the couple moved to Boulder and then to the more affordable town of Berthoud, where they bought a cottage.

Balas made his Denver debut in 1986 and has been showing his work in the area ever since. Right now, exhibition-goers have the chance to see a wide range of it in twin solos at the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver and Robischon Gallery.

We'll Be Seeing You, at the MCA, is an installation comprising photos, watercolors and lots of hand-scrawled and printed wall text. It's in the Project Gallery, which has become MCA's standout venue-within-a-venue because it features local artists.

As is well known, I have a "be here now" attitude about exhibits and find local artists to be every bit as interesting as those working anywhere in the world. In addition, one of the MCA's prime directives is to provide exhibition opportunities to artists from the community. With the Balas show, and the Jeff Starr show that preceded it, the museum is living up to this mandate admirably.

We'll Be Seeing You begins with a wall of Balas's "Studio Men" photos done over the last few years. They're informally attached to the wall, and for this reason — and because of his chosen medium and subject matter — they remind me of the 1,200 photos from the "Self" series by Jason Patz, which hung at the old MCA back in 2006.

Balas sees these "Studio Men" pieces as the "roots" not only of this show, but of his work in general. In fact, the word "roots' has been painted on the wall, and so has a rendering of plant roots that runs below the haphazardly arranged photos.

Most of the "Studio Men" portraits are elegantly finished black-and-white photographs. In many of them, the men are seen with props, including sports gear, that underscore the masculine qualities that Balas is looking for. Some of the photos are quite provocative, such as the bare-chested man pouring a gooey liquid on himself. Running across the bottom is the question "Got Oil?" in red type. The obvious referent is to the "Got Milk?' ad campaign, in which celebrities sport milk mustaches, giving them a whiff of childhood innocence; in the Balas version, the implication is much steamier.

The last photo is a self-portrait of the artist standing in front of a wall of his "Studio Men" photos. An arrow painted directly on the wall links the self-portrait to a pair of studies of MCA director Cydney Payton. From there begins a wall covered in portraits of the museum's staff and visitors.

These photos refer to the branches that have grown from the roots, and they're carried out not as silver prints or Cibachromes, but as color digital prints. It's interesting to notice the differences between old-fashioned photos and the newfangled digitals, and there's no question which are better: the traditional analogue photos, of course.

When I first saw this show, Balas had just started doing the pictures of staff and visitors. Although there are a few pieces yet to be added, it's pretty much set as it is.

On the wall opposite the "Studio Men" are signs and the statement "We are the Cathedral" which appears in several languages painted directly on the wall. Other slogans, such as "We are the World," "We are history" and "We are the Night Sky," were added by the museum staff after a brainstorming session with Balas.

The final wall in We'll Be Seeing You is arranged with a series of watercolor portraits that came out of the photos of the staff and visitors. They represent what Balas calls a "different level of creativity." Part of the process of doing the "stranger portraits" — as he refers to them — is that Balas interviews the sitters to find out about their personalities and interests. This knowledge is employed by Balas in conceiving the dreamy paintings, in which the faces emerge from complicated backgrounds.

The watercolors that finish off We'll Be Seeing You provide the perfect segue for the Balas exhibit at Robischon, Tattoo Detour, because this show is dominated by works on paper, including watercolors and drawings, though there are also some oil and mixed-media paintings. The pieces in Tattoo Detour were mostly done during a working vacation that Balas took to Hawaii. It was the first time he ever created "out of a suitcase," and the experience was "one of the best vacations ever," Balas has said.

The drawings, which are freely done in ink, like doodles or scribbles, were created at coffee shops and restaurants. They depict surfers in unlikely settings — for example, a guy riding his board on a table, or another with trees coming out of the board. For the more finished pieces, in watercolor or paint, Balas began by sketching the Hawaiian scenery, especially the beach, and photographing the people there, both candidly and in poses. Not surprisingly, they are mostly extremely fit young men. Back in the hotel room, Balas merged the landscapes and people to come up with his watercolors and paintings.

The watercolors and paintings really reminded me of the work of the Regionalist artists of the '20s and '30s — in particular, Paul Cadmus and Reginald Marsh, both of whom also liked to do beach pictures. But Balas said he was thinking more of Fra Angelico and other early Renaissance painters. Though Balas's oeuvre harks back to pop art, the Hawaiian pictures do it more directly than the MCA photos.

Two walls are covered with the drawings, which outnumber everything else combined, but for me, it's the watercolors that really take over Tattoo Detour. As everyone knows, watercolor is a medium that's seen as being out of date, but Balas brings new life to it. His control over color is remarkable, and his skin-tones are especially nice. Also, given the transparency of watercolor pigments, the pieces have an airy and fresh feeling, not looking old-fashioned at all.

Several really hit the mark, including "Full Circle," which is dominated by a man's face; "The End," where a quintet of guys enter the water; and, best of all, "Semper Fi," in which the Marines' famous motto is written as a tattoo across a guy's large back. The same model appears in one of the oil paintings, "Anchor," where his smiling face and cut torso are surrounded by miniature guys at play.

Both We'll Be Seeing You at the MCA and Tattoo Detour at Robischon hold their own individually, but taken together, they're spectacular and represent a rare chance to see in great depth the efforts of one of the state's best artists and to better understand how he creates his highly individualized style.

Late Tuesday, we learned that Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver director Cydney Payton is resigning. For details on this story, go to blogs.westword.com/latestword.