Chris Ware, Ox-Bow, and a Drawing

Back in 2001 I was awarded a Fellowship Residency at Ox-Bow in Michigan (you can read more about that transformative time here). This was a time before browsing the internet by phone from basically anywhere was even possible; hell, I didn’t even have cell coverage there. There was only one internet connection accessible at Ox-Bow and that was via dial-up.

In the Inn (before renovations that happened back in 2004 or 05), there was a small desk tucked into a corner where people would use the phone to call home or connect their brick-like laptop to the web for a few minutes. I had quite a few late night phone chats there with my then-girlfriend/now-wife after which I’d use the phone jack to log into my email for a sending/receiving session.

One evening I walked into the Inn to see Chris Ware sitting at the desk, talking on the phone, and making a small drawing on a scrap of paper. Mr Ware, a famed-though-awkward comic book artist who had created the fantastic Acme Novelty Library series and the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Among many works. You should look at them – they’re quite profound and beautifully made) was at Ox-Bow to give a talk. And there he was: silent, hunched, and seemingly distracted from his phone call. His pen moved gently, pensively. His paper skittered over the pitted wooden desktop.

We – those who had to use that desk and that phone because no other forms of communication with the outside world we available to us – had been used to sketching absentmindedly while sitting there. I had drawn many a cartoon self portrait during that summer. Often our drawings would join together, becoming layered time capsules consisting of blue and black ink. Mr Ware’s sketch was added to the desk drawer to be subsumed into the mass of other drawings.

Some time later – a day, a week – I found myself rooting through the drawer for a paper upon which to put my jottings, and there was Chris Ware’s drawing. On a 4 by 3 inch scrap of Ox-Bow map (verso) a weary figure, perhaps bemused but certainly full of existential angst (a stylized self-portrait of the artist?), sat before an anachronistic rotary phone. The expression of the man, the drawing’s line work, and the overall feeling of the piece are all quintessential Ware.

And so, here it is for your enjoyment:

ChrisWareDrawing2001Both sides of a piece of paper with a drawing by Chris Ware on it. Ink on paper, approximately 4 by 3 inches, 6/21/2001.

In Three Moving Parts at The Evanston Art Center

I have an exhibition that opens Sunday, September 29th at The Evanston Art Center. The show, titled In Three Moving Parts, is a three-person exhibition featuring nine of my own pieces alongside the works of Norbert Marszalek and Timothy P. Vermeulen.

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I traveled to Evanston this week to help install the show. It was a very fast trip – I was only in town for about 12 hours – but it is always a joy to travel those streets. My wife and I spent quite a few years in Chicago and Evanston, and those cities are close to our hearts. If you’re from the Chicagoland area, please consider coming up for the show. The opening is Sunday, September 29th from 1 – 4. Below are a few gray scale shots of the show during our installation. To see it in all its glorious surface density and color, make your way there!

Click the images for a larger view.

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I’ll be leading a workshop at the close of the show, on either November 9 or November 10. Stay tuned for information about that!

Also, I’d love to know what you think of the show – if you go, please leave comment here.

Hush to Roar in 1993

Twenty years ago today The Smashing Pumpkins released Siamese Dream, their breakthrough multi-platinum-selling effort.

A month later, on my way to Syracuse, NY to work at the New York State Fair (booth sitting for a basement waterproofing business), I stopped by the newly-built Walmart in Rome and bought the album on cassette.

CassetteSPI think it was the last cassette tape I ever bought, and I think the primary reason I purchased the cassette version was because my step-dad’s late 1980’s Buick Skyhawk had a cassette deck and I didn’t yet have a portable CD player.

I suppose I could wax rhapsodic about the album, take histrionic license in describing how it affected me, or make grand claims of its wider cultural significance. I doubt it needs that kind of support or defense. Just the fact that it still holds water for me after 20 years feels pretty significant when so much cultural flotsam has easily floated away. I’ll try to contain myself.

Yet even after two decades I can still remember some the feelings I had first hearing those songs. I literally caught my breath when Soma, the last song on the first side of the cassette, transformed from hush to roar in my ears that first time. I had been turning the volume up and up and up during that first side, and the quietness of the initial minutes of the track yielding instantly to the guitar blast was awesome to experience with no prior knowledge of what was about to happen.

That pivot – from Soma finishing side 1 and Geek USA opening side 2 – was astounding. I think these two are my quintessential Smashing Pumpkins songs. They both share a kind of binary form where the balance between the hush and the roar is necessary to their emotional content. The stuff that Corgan is talking about in these songs – the existential rush of desire and fear, love and death, meaning and dissolution – requires more than a simple, single movement. So when Soma blows up or Geek USA stills its storm we sense the contours of one man’s deeply-felt reflections.

Here are the lyrics at the key moment between the two movements in Geek USA:

Shot full of diamonds
And a million years
The disappointed disappear
Like they were never here

In a dream
We are connected
Siamese twins
At the wrist

And then I knew we’d been forsaken
Expelled from Paradise
I can’t believe them
When they say that it’s alright

It’s completely appropriate that we find a nod to the album’s title in the whispered words between each half of the song.

The longest track on the album, Silverfuck, takes this ebb-and-flow/hush-to-roar mode to another level, blasting through a ramrod guitar and drum interplay into scintillating psychedelic dreamscapes until pausing for an echoed spoken word intermission only to scream through the huge main theme and spin off in distortion and buzz. It’s exactly the melodrama and bombast that the Pumpkins – a la Billy Corgan – have always stood for.

Siamese Dream is full of great moments sonically and in the sentiments it carries; it’s easy to understand why this album resonated with a generation of teenagers. I don’t know that is truly relevant to my life or emotional state now, but I greatly appreciate the work in aesthetic terms, particularly in the balance and interpolation of big concerns with big sounds. Just a few short years later the Pumpkins would take all of this to a completely cosmic – and semi-psychotic – level on the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness double album. If Mellon Collie represented a serious kind of break from reality, I think it’s clear that Siamese Dream is solidly rooted in reality and felt experience. In it you hear just some conflicted, weird young kids from Chicago trying to carve out a space for their hopes and hide away from their fears. You can see the complexity of these emotions in their performance at The Metro in Chicago on August 14, 1993, which was a CD release event. Click here to watch it.

Or just pick up Siamese Dream and listen closely.

Looking Over the Overlooked at MACC

Jacob Maurice Crook and I have a show together at Moberly Area Community College. We installed today and the exhibition opens this coming Monday, June 6th. I hope you can get there to see the show – MACC’s gallery space is quite nice – but if you can’t make it, check below for some shots of the work installed. Click each image for enlargement.

1 ) Crook’s main wall arrangement. One larger oil painting, a small work in oil, and a mezzotint.

2 ) Crook’s inner room set – two oil paintings flank a beautiful graphite and gouache work.

3 ) Crook’s side wall, with an oil piece, two large mezzotints, and a graphite work.

4 ) Crook’s behemoth Hitt Street Garage, an 18 foot, 7 inch oil painting.

5 ) Ballou’s main wall set, with images from Chicago during 2000 and 2001.

6 ) A grouping from Ballou’s 2008 Illinois beach house series.

7 ) Ballou’s 2008 Michigan light photos.

8 ) The 2004 Whitney Ceiling set, installed physically for the first time here (I presented them online during 2010 at this link.)

If you are now sufficiently inspired to see the show for real, MACC is located at 101 College Ave. Moberly, MO 65270.

And here are our statements for your perusal:

Looking Over the Overlooked Exhibition Statement

Matt Ballou and Jacob Crook present work that engages with the proliferation of commonplace, yet ignored, spaces in the urban and suburban landscape.

Using primarily photographic images, Ballou depicts an iconography of geometries and formal tensions based on his experiences with specific interior and exterior spaces over the last decade. Several bodies of work from very different locations around the United States take center stage. These include a latticework of appropriated images showing the ceiling of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, a multitude of manipulated photographs of a skylight in a rural northern Michigan home, and a series of images of the degrading arcs and angles of a dilapidated municipal beach house in northern Illinois. Installing the images in broad arrays allows for a serialized, comparative reading that creates interplay between the total effect of the group and the specific characteristics of individual images. The works are not meant to be singular expressions but rather cumulative contemplations of space, place, light, and the modular effects of specific structures.

A dedicated representational painter and draftsperson, Jacob Crook’s work starts with repeated observation and detailed consideration of the overlooked arenas that quietly dominate the American landscape. Relying heavily on James Howard Kunstler’s book The Geography of Nowhere, Crook’s paintings, drawings, and prints attempt to come to terms with what Kunstler describes as the American “obsession with mobility, the urge to move on every few years” and the results of that tendency: “we choose to live in Noplace, and our dwellings show it.” Casting his eye on the margins of suburbia, Crook tries to locate the dynamic tension that exists between the land and our mundane domination of it. Crook carries on the legacy of landscape painting while rejecting its inherent valorization of the subject matter. Instead of merely creating pleasant pictures, his work uses the historical authority of both painting and the landscape to project a subversive series of questions toward viewers.

Together the work of these two artists is a vision of what American space has become. Not an entirely negative perspective, the work is meant to provoke an introspective attitude in viewers, challenging assumptions and calling questions to mind: “What spaces do I want to live in? What has dictated the sorts of spaces I live in by default? What is my responsibility for the reality of these spaces?” The artists hope that by bringing their own investigations – as humble or as banal as they might seem – to viewers, a thoughtfulness and contemplation might be stimulated.

Biographical Information

Ballou is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University of Missouri where he has taught since 2007. In 2011 he presented a major solo show at Gordon College in Wenham, MA and will exhibit with internationally renowned artist Tim Lowly at the 930 Art Center in Louisville, KY during the summer of 2011.

Crook earned his BFA from the University of Missouri in 2009. His work was recently included in the prestigious Fort Wayne Museum’s Contemporary Realism Biennial. He has been accepted to Syracuse University’s graduate printmaking program for the fall of 2011.

Jacob Maurice Crook | Artist Statement

My work is a contemplation of how the physical design of our surroundings can influence social behavior and also offer insight to cultural practices that inform the nature of such designs. In choosing the subject matter of my imagery, I focus my sights on the fringe of suburbia, attempting to locate dynamic tensions existing between the landscape and the homogeneous developments quietly dominating its topography. I chose to reject the idealized depiction of subject matter inherent in the history of American landscape painting. Instead of merely creating pleasant pictures, I use the history of both painting and landscape to project a subversive series of questions to viewers: What spaces do I want to live in? What dictates the spaces I live in by default? What responsibility (if any) do I take for the reality of these spaces?

Matthew Glenn Ballou | Artist Statement

These photographs were never meant to be artworks per se. Over the course of many years I have used photography as a way to decipher my own eye, as a way to better understand what visual dynamics draw me to certain scenes or arrangements of form and space. So most of what you see here was entirely reactive and instinctive at the beginning. I was attempting to see something in what others might easily overlook. Ultimately it worked, and in many ways these images have become historical and canonical to me. They are also nostalgic in that they are documents of places and times that carry personal significance. In them I see my own eye remixed, my own memory re-contextualized. In them I see a field of visual forces at play, which I have taken and used, reused, and reapplied. I present them in this way at this time to heighten my experience of their formal tension and balance in contrast with my emotional feeling for the spaces and times they represent. I present them so as to experience all of this again, anew. It is the contrasts and resonances made possible by this new context that bring artfulness to the work. The images themselves remain snapshots while the relationships among these fragments become a place for art experiences to reside: between the lines, in the overlooked spaces, around corners, beyond sight.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ten Years On

I graduated from SAIC nearly 10 years ago, and I’ve got a lot of memories from there. At first, right after I graduated, I was pretty negative about my experience. I felt as if they’d denied me some aspect of my education necessary to my future, that they’d tried to indoctrinate me, that they’d treated me like a number, not an artist.

In ways I was right, but in a lot of ways I was wrong. I’ve since gotten over it and look back with fondness, thankful that I grew so much during those years. One of the ways in which I grew was in my attention to the things that drew my eye. I began to document heavily, shooting thousands of photographs in the last couple years of my undergraduate career. Below I’ve posted some of those images. These are all from SAIC hallways and environs circa 1999/2000. I was obsessed with the angles, passages of light, and transitioning spaces in the places I saw every day.

Above, looking through the peep hole of my dorm door, 112 South Michigan Ave, 9th floor. This space no longer exists. Below, the elevator I took so many times.

Dead birds (they constantly flew headlong into the bank of windows on that facade, then fell, in droves, into the water below), dead leaves, and my shadow in a pool outside the lake side of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Two stairwell views on the way to the Advanced Painting studios (above and below).

Another stairwell view, light on the landing.

Glass and light, looking up toward the Advanced Painting studios.

Sunlight glances through the shades of my 13th floor (the smoking floor) dorm at 162 North State Street.

One Unbelievable Gift

Yesterday evening was the reception for my show (with David Spear) at PS Gallery in downtown Columbia, MO. A while after I arrived, grabbed an adult beverage, and began to talk with guests, out of nowhere walked up George.

George, a neighbor of ours from Evanston, IL, is a man who exudes kindness and engagement. Alison and I lived just down the block from him – his mane of long gray hair was trademark on our block. Often he’d be out front playing frisbee with his young son or in his studio woodworking (he’s a master).  Always generous with his time and interested in whatever I was doing, I got invited to spend time in his studio a few times. We’d hang out and talk, each conversation tinged with his joyful, gentle demeanor; we have had some great conversations over the years. He and his wife have provided a good home to one of my most cherished paintings for a few years now. See it here:

The Measure, 2001

The Measure (detail), Casein on panel, 16 by 20, 2001-02

Anyway, George drove down from Evanston (just north of Chicago) early on September 10th. He told me he spent the afternoon walking around Columbia, seeing the University, visiting shops, and generally getting a very good impression of our little portion of the Midwest. He stayed through the reception, then took me out for an amazing dinner at Bangkok Gardens. We drank martinis (made to his order) and talked about all manner of things – from teaching and spirituality to art and family. It was a good time and a great gift.

George and Matt

Here we are in a photo taken by our waitress. A bit shaky but effective.

George emailed me this afternoon to say he’d gotten back to Evanston just fine. I’m thankful for devoted and joyful friends like him. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this gesture – taking two days and driving 800+ miles just to look at my work and share a meal with me – that’s what I’ll take away from that night and carry with me. I turned 33 on the 7th. This visit was an amazing birthday gift. Thanks, George.