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.

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Inspiration – Jacob Maurice Crook, the Mezzotint Master

Jacob Maurice Crook is a former student and current colleague of mine at the University of Missouri. He’s amazing. After completing his MFA at Syracuse a few years ago, he took a job with Mizzou and will leave us this fall for a fresh gig. Here’s to many years creating and supporting students in his new position!

Jake has been a great friend over the years and was the first undergraduate with whom I had a strong rapport. His technical skills in drawing, painting, and printmaking are second to none, but his passion to make art and leave a mark on students is just as impressive. It has been a joy over the last couple years to walk past the printmaking room and hear the glory going on inside while he was teaching.

Nearly a decade ago Jake and I learned the mezzotint technique from Chris Daniggelis and, while I enjoy the medium and return to it often, Jake has become a master. Last night I was able to hang out with him as he listened to some sweet doom rock and pulled a fresh proof of his newest mezzotint. See the images below.

Inking and wiping down the plate…

Placing the inked plate on a great old Charles Brand press – with a flourish!

The plate ready for paper and pressure.

Applying the paper – carefully.

After the pass, assessing the situation. Jake is noting a place where the blankets slipped slightly.

The reveal…

Slowly seeing how well the image transferred…

After inspection, Jake zeroes in on the parts that printed best and evaluates what the next steps are to make the image better.

I can’t wait to see how the final piece turns out. It’s inspiring to see a master at work. So glad I’ve gotten to know and work with Jake over the last decade, and I’m looking forward to the next 10 years! RAWK! TOTALITY! AUTHORITY!

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!

Inspiration – Eric Sweet

Photo Apr 16, 3 09 28 PMEric blurred in front of the work of a fellow grad, Charlie Thompson.

Eric Sweet – a friend, colleague, and former student (in a few graduate classes) – died Monday, April 6th. It was sudden and strange in ways I can’t really describe. Yet his passing drew out much love and care from the people in his sphere of influence; so much of what remains is truly the definition of bitter-sweet.

Others have spoken much more eloquently than I can about all of this. But I wanted to take a moment here to memorialize Eric as so many of his friends and family have over the recent days. In the hours after he passed I made a few statements, but for the most part have been filled with silence. So here are a few more thoughts.

Photo Apr 16, 3 18 36 PMEric’s visage, pasted above the urinals in the Art Building bathroom…

I keep thinking of his graduate thesis title: Come to Nothing. The fact is that his life was the diametric opposite of that sentiment. He really did make something. He made real impressions (printmaking pun there). Real truths. Real observations. Real impacts. He was the opposite of a taker. He was not an emotional leech. While creating the work for Come to Nothing, Eric gave constantly of himself to encourage other grads and shape the graduate program. He could be forceful in advocating for excellence and understanding, but he did it out of a sense that we all really could be better. He knew that we could all be more thoughtful, more aware. And he helped us do that.

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Ideal City (Piazza Della Civilita Italiana), Hand pressed low relief blind embossment, 27” x  32”

Eric and his wife Catherine were the first graduate students I interacted with who really felt like colleagues and authorities from the very first time I met them. I often left meetings with them feeling that they were the ones doing the instruction, not me. This was – and is – a very good thing to experience. I have always felt edified by my time with them, and have loved the way Eric cast such a huge positive shadow over the graduate program at Mizzou. Grace and insightful clarity permeated their discussions. You knew you were getting straight talk from Eric.

Photo Apr 16, 3 18 27 PMA typical note from Eric to his students.

That straight talk continued after his death. In going over graduate review notes (faculty who attend a graduate’s review give feedback and vote on the student’s potential to continue on in the program), we noticed some from Eric. He’d been invited to attend review as one of our current Adjunct Professors, and he had taken the time to interact with the ideas of our current grads. Sharp and precise, Eric pulled no punches. He was a teacher right up to the end.

1935079_966535378259_7573425_nHanging out at Klik’s.

On the day of his Memorial Potluck, I was able to place a tribute to Eric on a large drawing at a local restaurant. If you’d like to see a time lapse of the drawing as I made it, watch below (or click here):

Time Lapse of Chalk Pastel Drawing at Gunter Hans, April 11, 2015

from matthewballou on Vimeo.

1907519_10105539051084089_281031879456274633_nEric at the first Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage movie viewing.

One of the most lasting things Eric gave us was his love for Catherine, which is one of the best love stories I’ve gotten to see up close. Their marriage was a testament to a couple being able to get over themselves in order to become more like their true selves. Their marriage made them more human and more transcendent. What a tremendous gift they pictured together.

~

I’m grateful to have known you, Eric. RIP.

~

Propaganda and Crafting the Self Image of a Nation

The title of this post might seem a little heavy handed… and I guess it is. But after my little adventure today the idea that propaganda has always been a means to shape how people (who are the objects of propaganda’s political and social aims) see themselves stands out to me. It makes sense that propaganda would provide a positive view for people to buy into; it needs to use that angle in order to work at all. I guess I knew all this years ago in the first years of my undergraduate education, but seeing it up close in a major museum in China was interesting.

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I began the day attempting to see two significant art museums in Guangzhou, one of which is close to our hotel and one that’s a 20 minute drive away. I was given advice by a local that I could walk to the first one, but my efforts proved futile. It was an interesting hour and 15 minutes getting myself more and more disoriented and more and more lost in a strange city.

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Eventually I found myself in a large train station with thousands of Chinese people and got into a line at the taxi stand. Once in my cab I gave the driver a slip of paper that a well-meaning woman at the hotel had written out for me in Chinese. After one failed attempt to get to the closer of the two locations, I gave him another line about the more distant museum and we made it there after 35 or 40 minutes.

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The Guangdong Museum of Art on Er-Sha Island is a part of a large museum campus system on a beautiful island in the Pearl River right in downtown Guangzhou. The collection is primarily traditional-based semi-contemporary work. Most of what I saw was painting, printmaking, and large figurative sculpture from the 30s through today. They have significant holdings on display from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

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Just one aspect that I focused on during my 3.5 hour tour of the museum’s three floors was the way women were depicted in the propaganda era works on display. As you’ve noticed, I’m posting a number of details here to illustrate my point.

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I am by no means an expert in Chinese art during Mao’s time, but I am aware of a variety of aspects of it. Getting to see these works in their country of origin and within their own context was a great experience. There was, to a piece, excellent craftsmanship in the work itself. The woodblock prints and oil paintings in particular were fantastic examples of the genre and time. I am sad to say that they were not all presented well, however. The framing was inconsistent – sometimes downright baffling (dozens of prints were matted with foamcore) – and many of the walls were scuffed and marked. In some rooms the arrangement of works seemed somewhat scattershot. But none of that can make one mistake the energy and physical presence of the best of the works on display.

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These works were designed to present a powerful, healthy, vigorous and virtuous people. Look at the faces of these women I’ve posted: In one a young mother runs out to work in the early morning before dawn, implement in hand, her baby strapped to her back. In another, two women – stern-faced and sharp-eyed, look determined to defend their way of life… machine guns rest against their bodies. In perhaps the most recent example, three young women rest in dappled sunlight beneath the massive tires of some piece of heavy machinery; their labors afford them peaceful – and aesthetic – rest.

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These propagandistic images succeed on a number of levels – they are expertly crafted illustrations, and so it makes sense that they utilize the visual language of illustration so well. They are illustrations of the regime’s aims and means. They functioned as didactic projections; they were the stained-glass window training centers of a new era. Yet they did more, as all propaganda does.

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Artworks such as these offered viewers both a prescribed view they were conditioned to believe and a perspective that plays into what every human being wants for themselves. We want signifigance. We want inclusion. We want meaning. We want to be noble. In spite of the pernicious and sometimes evil ends to which propaganda of all kinds has been used I think we can agree that part of the reason that it works is that it gives an image of self-virtue that the human animal craves. In light of these things, can we blame any people of any time for  buying in? I see the faces of these women and I have to wonder what their lives were – or are, if some of them are still living – really like. I can, at the very least, absolutely affirm that they were valuable, they were meaningful simply as human beings. The lives they lived, their loves, their sorrows, were all knit together into a weaving of the human consciousness in time and space. They were beautiful and strange, and they tried to believe in something beyond themselves that was, in fact, unified with all that they were. We all seek this, and we all want to know that it’s real.

The horror of propaganda is that it uses our own innate desire to be embedded in a broader truth against us.

Both Sides of the Brain

Mr. Aaron Coleman, mezzotinter extraordinaire, has been coordinating this traveling exhibition for quite some time. And now the first shows are coming soon.

Cover for the folio cases: GLORY! Photo by Aaron Coleman.

And here’s a listing of the locations for this traveling show – click the highlights for more info about the specific exhibitions:

2012

August 13 – September 18, 2012 ~ Basile Gallery, Herron School of Art. Indianapolis, Indiana

October 3 – October 28, 2012 – Washington Printmakers Gallery. Silver Spring, Maryland

TBA – Gallery 215. Northern Illinois University School of Art. Dekalb, Illinois (link when available)

2013

May 20 – August 29, 2013 – George Caleb Bingham Gallery. University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri (link when available)

TBA – Lamar D. Fain School of Art. Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas (link when available)

The edition is in the permanent collections of Herron School of Art and Northern Illinois University School of Art. BOO-YEAH!

“Both Sides of the Brain” Mezzotint

I was invited to be a part of Aaron Coleman‘s traveling mezzotint exhibition. The show, scheduled to travel to at least 4 institutions, will begin its run in August of 2012 at Northern Illinois University. I’ll keep everyone posted as more information about these shows becomes available. Many thanks to Aaron for including my work! Here’s a peep at the finished piece, titled Agathokakological. Click the image to see it larger.

Mezzotint (Charbonnel ink on Zerkall paper), paper size 10.5 by 13.5 inches. 2012, edition of 21 (19 numbered and 2 artist’s proofs).

Pulling an Edition of Mezzotints

I am a part of an upcoming traveling mezzotint show, a brainchild of printmaker Aaron Coleman. Today and last Friday I worked with Derek Frankhouser to pull 21 mezzotints (an edition of 19 +two artist’s proofs). Derek is also in the show and is a budding master printmaker who held a residency an internship at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in 2011. Below is a record of our efforts.

 

My hand, blackened by hand-wiping, in front of the pinned prints. I used Charbonnel ink.

 

Derek laying the paper…

 

…and carefully pulling it off the plate after a pass.

 

A beautiful pull (this was my first print of the process).

 

Pinning.

 

A shot of the whole edition set off to the side for drying.

I’m super thankful to Derek for his help and couldn’t have pulled the entire edition (without mistakes or needing to re-do) without him. This is the also the first time I’ve been able to edition beyond 10 or 12 prints; that’s a testament to Derek’s counsel and help.

Statement, January 2012

     I create paintings, drawings and prints in an attempt to address – through archetypal themes and symbols – the fundamental questions, ideas, hopes, and concerns I have about being in the world. I write texts in an attempt to integrate rational conceptions and reflections with my passionate, sometimes illogical, image making. In tandem, these avenues of expression form a multifaceted arena of investigation and inquiry that I use every day to – hopefully – understand and make sensible the miraculous reality of being.

     The statement above relies on the fact that I am deeply interested in three main aspects of the human condition: being, symbol, and body.

     I am intrigued by the state of evocative subjective experience that Gaston Bachelard described as “the astonishment of being.” Thus, though I am interested art of all kinds, I take particularly to those forms that connect with our embodiment or sense of being. This means the physical world, the objects we use and love, and the bodies we inhabit are particularly important to the sort of art I want to see and make.

     It follows then that I find the expression of meaning through symbol – that is, the potential for objects to accumulate and resonate with meaning – to be a central interest of my art-making practice.  Anything containing meaning has been, as John Dewey wrote, “funded” with importance through the physical interaction and intellectual contemplation human beings have invested in it over time.

     The body is the zone of incident where being-ness and the structures of significance coalesce. Therefore, I foster a deep appreciation for the human body as a container for and calibrator of meaning and knowledge. As a maker of images – be they painted, drawn, or printed – I function as a symbolist in the traditional sense; I create tableaus for the relational contemplation of that which is beyond the facts of appearance. In doing so I hope to stimulate an evocative, transformative experience in my fellow human beings.

Transient Geometries at Antelope Valley College

Quintessence #10, multiple monotype and woodblock prints, with acrylic, graphite and gouache on paper, 2009. Click to enlarge.

I’ve been included in a small group show at Antelope Valley College, which was organized and curated by AVC Professor Christine Mugnolo. I’m honored and excited by my fellow exhibitors: J. Jordan Bruns, David Eddington, and Lisa C. Soto. Click here for the AVC Gallery page describing the show!

Full disclosure: I went to grad school with Christine and she was the subject of one of the shows I worked with Gillock Gallery to organize back in 2006. I wrote an essay about Christine’s drawings and Gillock published a small catalog for the exhibition containing the text and a selection of her work. I’m really proud of that entire project and hope you’ll take a look here.

Here’s one of the drawings from the show – Self Portrait on Olive Ground, Pastel on toned paper, 24 by 18 inches. Click to enlarge.