Growing up in a New Jersey suburb between the Holland Tunnel and the Jersey Shore "spawned my affection and curiosity for all things carnivalesque", says artist Jennifer Balkan.
In elementary school, "I was more interested in illustrating my Book Report covers than writing reports". A grandmother did some oil painting, "the first oils I ever touched were hers", but Balkan studied behavioural science at university, worked in a rat lab in Boulder, worked with the mentally ill and disabled in Seattle, did a PhD on human migration in Chiapas, Mexico. And in 2002 she quit everything for art.
Yet "my time studying the human psyche, both psychologically and sociologically is there in my painting".
She now lives in Austin, Texas. Up at 6.30am, she gets her son Karlo, "my greatest creation", ready for school, drops him off, goes unicycling, has breakfast and is then in her studio until 4.30pm. And last year she co-founded a realist art school, Atelier Dojo, and sometime paints there "with my dearest painter gal pals".
Her own studio, "though cluttered with animal masks, crowns, clocks, baby doll heads, disguises, is cosy". Balkan's paintings reflect her obsession with brain science and ask "what drives our behaviours, what motivates our personality, our many faces, our inner conflicts, our struggles", and her latest show she calls The Human Condition. It explores "our suppressed impulses, our id, our animal instincts, our demons". She believes "we struggle with urges that aren't always acceptable. We are socialised to hide or control some of the animal urges but they are what make us human". Sometimes Balkan's imagery is "gender-flipped". She loves painting people but is "consumed by otherworldly imagery and fantastical notions of humanity where reality is just a little bit tweaked". In this work, Temptation, two hooded, bird-headed male figures face each other in a roiling sea. "One boy is tempted by something magical but he is tempted only by himself, his impulses, his darker side," says Balkan. The crows "symbolise wisdom, good luck, death and magic" but adding to the complexity, Balkan says that "in Japan, crows represent rejuvenation and rebirth". And for Balkan, behind "humankind's perpetual struggle to rise above animal instincts and rein in the emotions" are the seven deadly sins of Catholic theology. One Balkan work shows a skull with a clown's red nose. Is life both deadly serious and funny? "Levity, says Balkan, is a necessity. Balkan's intriguing, memorable work, with their compelling narratives, has been exhibited all over the US. And now they can be seen in Mullingar, clearly a happening place.
'The Human Condition' at The Chimera Gallery until July 31. www.jenniferbalkan.net