2017 Pride

I completed a number of projects in 2017 and started a few more. Setting goals and keeping an eye on the prize during the vicissitudes of daily life can be hard, but I’ve gotten better at it over the years (thanks mostly to my loving partner, Alison). I already mentioned stuff about my exercise routine, and posted about my exhibition of recent work (that opens today!).

Back in May I set some goals for the year while at the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching in Michigan. Here are my written goals:

I’m happy to say that I’ve worked to complete most of these items and even those I’ve not yet finished have been pushed forward. I’m glad, given how agitating 2017 was socially and politically, that at least in terms of family and my work I’ve been stable and focused. The results are things of which I am really proud.

Probably highest on my list is the publication of my essay On Scholarship: Empathic Attention, Holy Resistance. It appeared in SEEN Journal and explores the importance of attention in an environment of political vitriol and “fake news.” I hope you’ll pick up a copy and read it – it’s one of the best things I’ve written in years, and it shares space with artists and writers and thinkers I admire. I’m really thankful for the opportunity to have this piece out there.

A shot of the cover of the SEEN Journal and a copy of the first page of my essay. Above is a copy of The New Territory.

I am also super excited to be working on a piece for The New Territory. If you are a Midwesterner, you need to get this publication. I am working on a piece exploring the work of Joey Borovicka and adjacent ideas about interiority, Midwestern space, and solitude. I can’t wait to get it finalized and ready for the editors to sort through. Getting to write about key ideas and the work of others is very important to my identity as an artist and educator. I also just love being involved with publications like The New Territory and SEEN. They are labors of love and works of passion that really do the hard work of shoring up meaning, intellectual effort, and spiritual yearning.

I hope to continue this trend in 2018, as I’ve got the Promotion to finalize!




Statement for a new exhibition of WHENEVERwhen works, January 2018

Note: I’m getting the opportunity to show a new group of WHENEVERwhen pieces right off the bat in 2018. Here is my statement for the exhibition, with a few of the works interspersed within the text. I’ve enjoyed some wonderful experiences at Sager Braudis Gallery over the years, and this is the high point. I’m pleased with their installation and think the work looks great there. Of course, I’m biased. I’d love to hear what you think. You can see some gallery information here.

Splint – Oil on panel with custom oak frame. 2015-2017.

For more than twenty years, my painting, drawing, and printmaking have oscillated between symbolism-heavy representational imagery and formal explorations in the tradition of 20th century abstraction. This seemingly broad swing of subject and purpose in my work is directly related to my conviction that the core visual dynamics of either mode are, essentially, the same. I often tell my students that I’ve been making the same picture for my entire artistic life.

Sometimes I have felt led to apply those underlying compositional forces to the service of representational imagery, and other times I have felt the need to strip away everything but color, material, and surface. When I pursue abstraction, the resulting work is a foray into perceptual and physical experience. Thus, even though the works do not depict discernible objects, they are still – to me – realist in the sense that they focus on observational and haptic (sense of touch) phenomena. Conversely, my representational paintings are always abstract inquiries into the nature of meaning, purpose, and human engagement.

Periodically, when the communication of abstract, metaphorical ideals feels incongruous to me, I move intuitively into abstraction. The last time this shift occurred was about two years ago. I was coming out of a long period of working exclusively in the tondo format and had begun to readdress the rectilinear format standard to most painting and drawing. I had rejected it previously because it felt too much like a window or door space. I was looking to depict my ideas in some other form of oculus, something more subjective and mysterious. I started, in sketches and digital studies, to break the picture plane in a number of specific ways. These breaks were related to the work and ideas of artists such as Magalie Guerin, Vincent Fecteau, and Marcelo Bonevardi (among others). I was also greatly influenced by my research into Eastern and Western mandala forms as well as the newer generations of digital painting and drawing apps I was using.

Then, at age 39, I had a heart attack.

The near-death I experienced purged my interests. Though I have completed a few straight representational works since that cardiac arrest in February 2016, the vast majority of my work has focused on a series of abstract investigations I call WHENEVERwhen. In the WHENEVERwhen series I deploy an array of formal strategies that accumulate over time and leave a record within the work. These strategies are diverse; they might function in terms of simultaneity of form – for example, an area may appear to manifest as both light and solid structure – or display a counterintuitive sense of weight and balance. I have also incorporated a significant amount of collage, relief cutting, carving, and digital prototyping into my working methods.

Icon Eikon – Oil, acrylic, marker, and spray-paint on shaped panel. 2016-2017.

Another significant development of the WHENEVERwhen series was my use of shaped surfaces and disrupted framing. I have been obsessed with making frames a part of the work for many years. At first I used clean, minimal float frames. More recently the frames both hold the work and are painted on or defied in specific ways – often through cutting and reassembly – in order to fit them into the pictorial language of the work. This integration of the frame is important to the sense of edge, continuity/discontinuity of the visual field, and aesthetic structure I seek. A number of my WHENEVERwhen works are framed in vintage oak reclaimed from old church pews and University of Missouri drawing desks. This 50 to 70 year old wood adds a density that corresponds to the surfaces and textures comprising my work.

The WHENEVERwhen series is serving as a kind of pivot within my life as an artist. I am bridging influences across history and media in ways I have not done in the past. I am pushing through old modes of working and thinking. My proclivities are both affirmed and challenged. My assumptions are acknowledged, and either used or left aside. Of course, this pivoting is also happening in the paintings, drawings, and prints themselves. Somewhat disheveled and awkward, yet bursting with chromatic beauty, these works are artifacts of aesthetic exploration, distillations of influence, and tributes to rigorous play.

Matthew Ballou – December 2017

A la Lutes – Acrylic, gouache, Sharpie, and graphite on relief structure. 2015-2017.

Here are some installation shots of some of the work… I hope you can come and see the work before the show closes at the end of January.



Restraint&Limitation Exhibition at Mizzou

I have curated an exhibition at the George Caleb Bingham Gallery at the University of Missouri called Restraint&Limitation. This show features the work of Anna Buckner, Sharon Butler, and Gianna Commito, along with some people with connections to Columbia, Missouri – Hali Oberdiek, Jessica Thornton, Elise Rugolo, Lauren Steffens, and Jennifer Ann Wiggs.

Lauren Steffens’s floor piece, Rugolo’s encaustic work, and Gianna Commito’s sharp-edged abstraction in the exhibition.

It is a spare, economically arranged show. It’s openness grew out of my musings on abstraction of all sorts. I have long felt that bigger is not really better when it comes to abstraction, and I set out to bring together just a few examples of works that do this. Here is my curatorial statement for the show (a text/painting pair) with a number of shots of the installation interspersed. There will be a catalog of this exhibition available soon.

Detail shot of Ballou’s Curator’s Statement.

Curator’s Statement for Restraint and Limitation

Contemporary abstraction is a huge, multifaceted project.  From Katharina Grosse, Julie Mehretu, or El Anatsui to Cordy Ryman, Odili Donald Odita, or Amy Sillman, the range of potential and diversity of referent available to artists is obvious.

There are no clear boundaries, no distinct definitions that provide a unified perspective on the practice of abstract painting. That contemporary abstraction utilizes the history, physical interactions, and conceptual structure of painting is axiomatic. Yet to suggest that it is limited to the realm of painting is a dramatic misunderstanding.

Detail of Anna Buckner’s Dutch Still Life.

The old discourse that endlessly returns to the interplay between abstraction and representation has lost any potency to report on what is actually happening in much of contemporary abstraction. With this exhibition, I hope to present a sliver-like view into the modes of abstraction that intersect with painting as a form and which, in unique ways, demonstrate the limitations of depiction and representation to clarify the kinds of experiences that abstraction affords us. I also seek to show how smaller works may defy the conceit that abstraction is most powerful in its more monumental expressions.

Commito and Buckner works hanging in the show.

A side view of Butler’s four goodmorningdrawings and their presentation.

The three primary artists here are women from different stages of their careers. They show commitment to the aesthetics and procedures inherent in painting practice today, yet bring diverse pressures to the form. Buckner – a newly minted MFA – pieces scraps of fabric into small, taut grid fields. Butler – with decades of art making and writing behind her – brings us small digital drawings created on her iPhone. Commito – a mid-career educator and artist with broad impact – focuses on sharp geometries and wonderful chromatic synergies. Their influences – ranging from post-paint materiality to provisionality to traditional hard-edged painting – form an invigorating view into a restrained yet evocative corner of artmaking.


Detail of an Elise Rugolo work.

Grouping of Wiggs pieces, with Commito off to the right.

Post Script ~

I was particularly excited to have Butler in this exhibition – ten years ago we participated in an online “shared critique” event that took place on the now defunct Thinking About Art blog. I was writing about the work of someone else, but Butler was assigned to write about one of my paintings. I thought her response sharp, knowledgeable, and strong. Though she did seem to dismiss that work, I was pleased to have her voice address my art making, and I have followed her closely ever since. Her art making, writing, and blogging – especially with the influential site Two Coats of Paint – are important. I’m really glad to have be a part of this.

Another view of the installation of Butler’s works.

LEGO Sculptures on display

Thirty-four of my LEGO sculptures, created 2010-2017, are on display at the George Caleb Bingham Gallery at the University of Missouri right now. These include five bronze pieces as well.

Since I was a child, LEGOs have been a staple in my creative habits. Often, when I am met with some creative block, when I am disillusioned, or when I simply need a change, LEGOs are my go-to outlet. They offer a kind of open-ended opportunity to make things without any conceits or justifications. Usually, at least for me, this kind of building amounts to a formal exercise within certain boundaries. After all, LEGOs are a finite tool. They have limited application and range. In spite of this, however, they allow for many hours of engagement and a diversity of resolution. LEGOs really are a creative partner in my life.


Over the last 10 years or so I’ve been interested in a number of practitioners of contemporary sculpture and their work has influenced how I have played with my LEGOs. First and foremost is Vincent Fecteau, who crafts strange, small sculptures that exhibit a wonderful sense of hidden interior space. Additionally, Barry Le Va’s dark and geometric wall and floor installations (and the awesome drawings for those installations) are also important to me. Didier Vermeiren’s solemn, dense sculptural works manifest a kind of austerity and clarity that challenges me. These artists (among many others) inspire me to play with associations of form and color, as well as with the implications of scale. Fecteau in particular has strongly influenced all of my work over the last 6 or 8 years. 

The sculptures collected here, both those made of standard LEGOs and those crafted in bronze, are meant to function like poems of form: slight, strange, awkward, yet solid in a sense. In them I have gone through an iterative process of placement and association. In my mind, it’s all shape dynamics and formal play. These miniatures have stimulated my paintings, drawings, and prints for a long time. At this point I see them as part of my overall work, though definitely a part that’s still in development.

A Couple Early 2017 Highlights

This Friday, a show of my collaborative works created with the great Joel T. Dugan goes up in Brooklyn, at es ef eff gallery. Head over to 893 Bergen Street at 7pm this Friday, February 17.

Above: a work from the exhibition, “Crest” – Acrylic, oil, pastel, colored pencil, and graphite with woodblock printing on paper mounted on panel. 11 by 11 inches, 2016-2017.

I’m also pleased to share that the Manifest Gallery painting anthology I was selected for has finally been published. It’s a beautiful volume (buy it here).

Above: one of my personal favorite paintings, beautifully reproduced. The INPA6 book features some amazing work by a lot of great artists, as well as friends and colleagues… like Nathan Sullivan and Melanie Johnson:

Above: detail of a Nathan Sullivan work from the book. Below: Melanie Johnson’s included work.

Pretty cool stuff! I’m thankful! There are a number of additional events happening this year that I will share soon – exciting times!

When a man loves a woman…

…he renovates the main bathroom as a Christmas present while she’s traveling around the world to adopt a daughter. 

New paint, rearranged lighting and towel fixtures, new faucets and drains, and new caulk and sealant on toilet, tub, and sink. New moulding top and bottom, new registers and venting, and a deep clean (wire brush, etc) of everything.

I always try to do a household project for my wife when something huge happens in our lives. Bringing FangFang home is a huge Christmas gift for our family. I wanted to have something special for my wife on her return. Adoption trips are so tough emotionally and physically. It’s nice to have a bright, clean, and cozy space for a shower or bath at home… 

So thankful to my wife and all of the others who have worked to bring this beauty home. 

The Protests at The University of Missouri

As many around the country and around the world are aware, this past week at Mizzou has been harrowing. It was a week that culminated in the ouster of both the MU System President and the Chancellor. On Monday, before the strange, terrifying days that followed, many classes were let out in solidarity with #ConcernedStudent1950 and Jonathan Butler. I told my students that I’d be down on Mel Carnahan Quadrangle to witness the events. I decided that I would undertake a drawing to commemorate the day.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 6.06.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 6.06.46 PMAbove are two shots of me at work, the first by my colleague and former student Jacob Maurice Crook (Adjunct Professor at Mizzou), the second by one of my graduate students, Jeff Markworth (MFA Candidate, 2016). I was also photographed by local media, and one of those shots can be seen here.

I’ll leave the commentary to other voices. My purpose in all of this is to remain an ally for my students while representing Mizzou well and encouraging the change it needs to see.

Here’s the drawing I made. It’s not as refined as I’d like, nor is it my normal thing to do subject matter like this. But it was a good exercise, and a good day to be present and aware.

November92015“An Historic Day on Carnahan Quad: November 9, 2015.” Pastel on paper, 28 by 44 inches. Click for enlargement.

Two Shows Going Up Soon!

I’m involved with two really great group shows based on the landscape right now. One is at the Deines Cultural Center in Russell, KS and the other is at IMAGO in Columbia, MO. The IMAGO show – Landscape: Idea and Ideal – is the inaugural exhibition for this new downtown gallery space. It’s really beautiful and I’m honored to show with a group of friends and former students Eric Norby, Matt Rahner, Megan Schaffer, and David Spear.

imagoimageA panorama of the Imago interior – it’s a beaut! Click for enlargement.

The group show at the Deines – called Finding Balance – is also about landscape. Curated by Joel T Dugan, the show features 15 artists from around the country and the catalog for the show looks really sweet. Norby and Schaffer are also in this exhibition, as is my good friend and former student Jacob Maurice Crook, who just recently earned his MFA from Syracuse University. Glory all around!

findingbalanceNice to see Norby’s work on the cover of the catalog – Click to download it!

Working It Out

There’s my daughter Miranda doing some complex equations on the chalkboard. She’s working out something profound there.

I’ve been trying to work things out, too. We’ve got a new daughter in China – Madeleine Cai Qun. We just found out yesterday. I’ve been thinking about it, trying to work out how it feels this time – this time being a dad. In some ways – between all the different sorts of work that I do, and trying to be a good dad, and trying to be a good husband – I often don’t know how I feel. My mind is usually full of research, various readings, lesson prep for 4+ classes, a whole range of concerns with my graduate students, community projects, church stuff, family stuff, house maintenance stuff, following up with friends stuff, the logistics of just being-where-I’m-supposed-to-be-when-I’m-supposed-to-be-there, and on and on… Often I don’t know what I feel or if I feel things at the proper proportion because I’m not being reflective enough – not being present enough, really – to have full awareness.

I know this is a season of my life and I know it’ll pass. But when I think about Madeleine and Miranda and Alison, I want to be totally clear.

When I see Cai Qun’s arm raised – little Madeleine Cai Qun Ballou – I’m perfectly clear. Let’s go get her now. I’m ready. I want to be her dad RIGHT NOW.

I guess that’s all I feel: let’s get this flight planned and the paperwork filed and roll. It’s transition time. It’s life-change time. I thank God for my awesome wife who has had the passion, dedication, intelligence, and intensity to follow through and pull this off. This is the sort of adventure we looked forward to a decade ago when we decided to get married. We never knew the specific character of the challenges or what particular form the dreams would take, but we worked it out. Sovereign movements indistinguishable from chance and incomprehensible without faith.

Inspiration – Norleen Nosri

Norleen Nosri is a talented ceramist from Malaysia who is earning her MFA here at the University of Missouri. I’m privileged to work with her and to own several of her beautiful pieces. Her work is, to me, almost above comment. The compositions she creates are gentle and evocative. She says they are an attempt to “elicit harmony in duality.”

Above: Two images I took when I met with Norleen in her studio this past week. These groups of objects were there awaiting their placement in larger compositional arrangements and I was struck by the incidental beauty of their color, interrelated shapes, and intimate space. There was an amazing northern light coming in through a bank of windows; it produced a wonderful glow on the exquisite surfaces of Norleen’s porcelain vessels…

Here are two cups my wife and I have that were made by Norleen.

This last image is an example of Norleen’s awesome maker’s mark. The Nosri name is of tremendous importance to her, and is a connection to her family, her country, her heritage, and the meaning she understands of life. Having discussed this name with her many times, I always make it a point – whenever I hold one of her creations – to turn it over and look upon this honorable name.