This Art Comes With Strings Attached

Arts & Culture

Pictured: Refracted Calm by Stephen Balut.

In his role as Studio Director with MHK Architecture, Stephen Balut operates within a carefully regulated world of zoning and building codes, clients and collaboration, meticulously planning each project over time with a team of professionals. But when he gets to the canvas, all bets are off and all guardrails removed, as the artist constructs his three-dimensional abstractions with everything from acrylic paint to simple carpentry nails and an endless collection of yarn, thread, wire and monofilament. “It’s just an expression of beauty and art,” Balut says. “A flash of spirit in the moment. I don’t stress or worry, because every painting is a fun experiment, and it can be whatever it turns out to be.” His latest experiments, a collection of abstract seascapes and sunsets in a growing body of work Balut calls String Theory, are on display at State of the Arts Gallery in Downtown Sarasota.

“Most people don’t ever expect to see thread or string on a canvas,” Balut says, “so they’re often perplexed when they first see a painting.” But that kind of curiosity is exactly what an artist wants to see, and Balut derives no small satisfaction in watching the intrigued party’s reaction as they realize what they’re looking at. “Right when they get about four or five feet away,” he says, “they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” But even up close, Balut’s work can baffle the eyes.

Carefully crafted and geometrically exacting, Balut’s architectural background comes through in the work’s clear dedication to the power of the line, which Balut layers both vertically and horizontally—first in acrylic paint and then with whatever thread or string he’s chosen for the piece. By now, he has a collection of hundreds, each retaining its own character and properties, and he deploys them as a painter would any other palette. “They all reflect light differently,” Balut says. “And it’s really fun to play with the different materiality.” An underlayer of metallic wire or monofilament, for example, can create a spontaneous backlight or glitter effect in a piece; and an elevated layer of yarn can create compelling shadows. “And that creates depth,” says Balut, who, ever the architect, just can’t help but play with space.

The result in some is something of an optical illusion, as the patterns in a piece will reinforce and repeat, drawing the eye in and threatening the mind with thoughts of infinity. And then, when viewed at a different angle, the whole pattern shifts, as if reality has slipped slightly off its axis—or the viewer has. The effect is almost Kubrickian. In others, the threads strung across the canvas serve more as an organizing structure, secondary to the intricate color work happening in acrylic. Viewers are encouraged to touch the artwork—gently—setting the strings a-tremble and getting lost in the color and the shape, looking into the stuff of the universe, where everything is just vibrations and space.

And that’s String Theory.

Pictured: Refracted Calm by Stephen Balut.

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