Intimate distance: Balfour gets up close and abstract

Ever seen an actor backstage after a performance or watched a model relaxing between takes? If so, you know how jarring it is to discover that what looks natural under the lights or in front of the camera looks anything but in person. The exaggerated lines and colors of actors and models’ make-up depend upon viewers' distance to achieve their desired effects.

A similar phenomenon occurs in many of the paintings in Renee Balfour’s exhibit, “Botanicals,” currently on view at the McGuffey Art Center. The show’s ten large and seven small oils offer extreme close-ups of plant ephemera, usually in various stages of decay or seed dispersal. Viewed from several yards away, Balfour’s large compositions appear seamless, with luminous foregrounds and beautifully contoured elements that recede into deep shadows. But seen up close, they lose a little magic, as Balfour’s tricks with brushwork and palette become apparent.

In both her large and small paintings, Balfour magnifies her subjects to the point where specific organic references are lost and abstraction takes over. Her small oil-on-panel pieces are notable for her variety of strokes and textured layering. Here, technique becomes as much a part of the images as what’s observed, and Balfour allows colors to butt up against each other, where they don’t always play nicely (which is often a good thing). She even introduces an electrified area of coppery scratches into the autumnally colored “Willow.”

This energetic, sometimes frenzied quality gives way to a more controlled and considered approach in Balfour’s larger oil-on-canvas works. Her surfaces become smoother, and, seen from afar, her strokes disappear in the service of letting the paintings’ content convey texture and sweep. Balfour also opts for more careful palettes, calculated to enable fluid transitions. Viewed from across the room, luminous highlights come forward, while rich, cavernous darks recede into the background.

In two untitled works hanging on the gallery’s south wall, papery vortexes of gold, orange, coral, and russet (perhaps dried onion skin?) call to mind canyons or rumpled organza. Balfour deftly uses pale gold and cream to illuminate edges and highlight focal points, while creating contours with teal and shadows out of deep red. But the sensual grandeur of these pieces is undercut somewhat when viewed up close, where the stroked-in nature of the colors becomes obvious.

Nevertheless, Balfour’s dramatic abstracts are seductive, even if their charms are most alluring from a distance.

Renee Balfour’s exhibition, “Botanicals,” runs through November 20 in the Sarah B. Smith Gallery at the McGuffey Art Center. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.