A New Collaboration

I have known my friend Geo ever since we lived next door to each other in Evanston, Illinois in 2006. Though my adventures took me to Missouri and around the world in subsequent years, Geo made an effort to stay in contact. The man traveled to visit some of my shows, even appearing in Columbia, Missouri for an exhibition in 2009.

Geo surprised me back in 2009. We got Thai food and cocktails.

In more recent times we have taken to writing missives via email and text, sharing books and ideas. Geo has been a woodcarver for many years, and his work has been sought out all over the Chicagoland area since the 80s. I’ve appreciated the friendship Geo has given over the years, and see him as a kind of “future self mentor.” Imagine a version of yourself visiting from some alternative future who gives encouragement? That’s kind of what Geo is for me.

Portrait Demo Sketch (of Geo). Chalk pastel on paper, 24×18 inches, 2013. Created at Evanston Art Center where I gave a portrait workshop.

Through our chats and several visits, we have connected as artists and visual thinkers. Every once in a while Geo would send me small carvings and I started wondering what shared art-making might be for us. Eventually, it seemed natural to start formally collaborating on a group of carved paintings, three of which appear below.

Geo began these works by creating carvings based on some of my own WHENEVERwhen or Ensigns For Miyoko Ito series works. He owns several of them (in fact, Geo has purchased many of my paintings over the years) and was able to observe them closely. Inspired to bring some carved aesthetics to bear on those visual themes, Geo crafted some really interesting surfaces. One (the “Wedge Interpretation” piece above) he actually painted most of as well. I added chromatic exploration to each of the relief carvings, seeking to transform both Geo’s carved environment an my own formal structures.

I’m feeling excited – and thankful! – for this fresh collaboration. Here’s to many more shared works with Geo.

Impossible Interiors at William Woods University

I’ve got a group of works on display at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri. The show runs through October 6th, and I’ll be giving a talk that evening. For a preview, look below.

This is the third time I’ve shown this body of work, and I’d like to get the chance to show it again. The subject of the work – a “friendly-fire” bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. If you’d like to see more about this situation, check out my writing about it here.

The card for the exhibition.
Back of the card with description of the show.

I’m also pleased to have a small group of my collaborations with Joel T Dugan also on display at the gallery. These Phoneme works are some of my favorites, and there are a number of just finished works included.

A Little Cartography

Many years ago, my Cousin Chris and I were constant companions in the woods around Camden, NY. In particular, we explored the region between our homes. His place was several miles away to the west if you took the old dirt road that emerged onto the highway 50 yards from the house I grew up. We also did a lot of camping and hiking in the woods east of my own home.

Here’s what that area looks like today (well, a few years ago via Google Earth):

I grew up along Route 70 – Wolcott Hill Road – about two miles from the town of Camden. Wolcott Hill Road runs roughly South to North away from Camden, so this view is oriented with East at the top and West at the bottom. You can see the small lake in the lower half of the image; that is a reservoir, and part of Camden’s waterworks system. If you were to walk due West from the South corner of the reservoir, you’d come out on Wolcott Hill Road right next to my childhood home.

From the ages of 12 to 16 or so, I started making maps of our haunts out in this section of land. When I was 19, I decided to make a larger, more refined version of the map, bringing together all of the various places we used to camp and hunt. The result is below.

Watercolor map of area around my home. 24×22 inches. 1996.

There are some obvious mistakes of guesstimation here, most glaringly in the position of Route 85, which we locals know as Skinner Settlement Road. There is also some distortion of the placement of various fields, and a bit of miscalculation of distances, but I’m pretty pleased with my effort since I did not use any proper map as a source.

There are some great memories here.

At Winter’s Night, we camped in -2° weather. In the morning, we were lying in impressions in the hard snow caused by our heat coming through the tent.

At Cowadunga, we cooked venison in beer and used hard, flat cow poop for fuel – hence the name we gave the place.

The Reservoir Cabin Site was a special spot, and we stayed there quite a few times.

One night, at View, we had amazing, super clear skies all night long. It seemed as if we could see forever.

Though we never camped at Lone Tree Hill, we often climbed the massive maple there.

At Earthview we had one of our strangest camping trips ever, when we were accosted by a large number of Woodland Jumping Mice. What seemed like dozens of them came through our area, but the issue was that this was in the wee hours of the morning, so it was very dark, and the rhythm of their jumps through the underbrush sounded like footsteps. Pretty wild.

I’m glad I made documents like this throughout my teenage years. Though most are in a more rough or not so presentable state, they represent my attention to and interest in my surroundings and experiences. I’m glad to have them.

ARTFORUM One-liner, 2002

“Oh, to have the sycophantic word-love of the curatoriate (à la Jeffrey Weiss) and willing accomplices in the art press.”

Matthew Ballou, Evanston, IL

Written in response to Jeffery Weiss’s feature on Robert Ryman’s work from ARTFORUM Volume 41, No. 1. See the cover below. Available online here: https://www.artforum.com/print/200207/radiant-dispersion-robert-ryman-s-philadelphia-prototype-2002-3299

Quarantined With Nicholas Cage

What did you do during the pandemic?

A lot of people picked up a new skills and or hobbies during our collective quarantine. Some people got going with a sourdough starter. Some people began learning a new language. Others just worked on their alcoholism.

What I did was decide to watch as many Nicolas Cage movies as I could.

Nicolas Cage in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” 2022.

While I didn’t make it through his entire oeuvre, what I did do was see a good mix of older and newer movies, both good and not so good. From that exploration I’ve collected five below that I think demonstrate the recent best of Nicolas Cage. I’ll also rank them from #5 to #1.

Nicholas Cage in “Vampire’s Kiss” 1988.

I’ve got a lot to say about each of these films but I will constrain myself to just a few sentences, a few tasty bits of weirdness, to get you in the door. Why try to convince you? Because I really think that these are high-quality Nicolas Cage movies. You may have a sense that Nicolas Cage is not the greatest actor of his generation and, sure, there are some reasons why one might think that. He is a polarizing figure. Whether you love him or hate him, you can’t say he’s boring. I think that if you look at specific moments in the Oscar-winning actor’s career, you will see that he has moments of pure transcendence.

Given that, I’m always down for a foray into cinematic ridiculousness with him.

5) Pig (2021)

Nicholas Cage as a grimy, crazy, disaffected former-chief who goes all Fight Club in an attempt to recover his stolen truffle-sniffing pig. What more do you need? Best part: When our pig hunter shames the hell out of the hoity-toity world of fine dining.

“Pig” movie poster

4) Mom and Dad (2017)

This genre-bender reverses a lot of what you might expect from where you think it is headed, and that’s good. There are classic one-liners, great Cage rage sequences, and some fun camera work and editing. Best part: Selma Blair (i.e. Mom) in a great match up with Cage in a role that plays off his crazy with some crazy of her own.

“Mom And Dad” movie poster

3) Between Worlds (2018)

Ok, listen. This is one weird movie. It’s got an interesting sci-fi premise and would have been a much worse movie in less confident hands. Cage and veteran Franka Potente (Run Lola Run, The Borne Identity) anchor the film with seriousness and earnestness, in spite of how ridiculous parts of it are. And parts are really ridiculous. The scene where Cage’s character is being hosed down while dancing is just next level. And then there’s the scene where the character is having sex while READING A BOOK OF POETRY BY NICHOLAS CAGE. Ok? We’re getting meta here. It’s worth the watch just for the water hose thing.

Nicholas Cage and Penelope Mitchell in “Between Worlds”

“Between Worlds” movie poster

2) Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

Imagine walking into an abandoned, decrepit Chuck-E-Cheese’s and being attacked by animatronic characters that have been possessed by evil forces. That’s the basic idea here. Ok, now imagine you’re Nicholas Cage AND YOU HAVE NO DIALOGUE AT ALL. No words are spoken by the star and top-billed actor in the movie. None. This movie is mostly just campy fun, but half of the tension it carries is found in waiting for and expecting words to come out of Cage’s mouth. This full-on indie project must have been someone’s labor of love that just happened to get Cage behind it. It’s so odd and off-tone in ways, yet it works. Come for the epic death blows to possessed animatronics, stay for Cage’s wordlessness.

“Willy’s Wonderland” movie poster

1) Mandy (2018)

Mandy is a work of art. Italian-Canadian Director Panos Cosmatos continues in Mandy the qualities that made his epic Beyond the Black Rainbow so strange and powerful. Atmospheric space and light. Intense color. Aural compositions that influence the space and visuals. The use of chiaroscuro to force viewers to complete the dynamics of action and scenic structure. Absolutely one of the best movies I’ve seen a decade, Mandy embraces its heavy-handed narrative and unanswered questions. Yet the emotion that comes through is palpable and so important to how it remains re-watchable. Andrea Riseborough’s subtle and keenly-felt performance is a wonderful foil to the insanity mounting in Cage’s character. If you see only one movie here, see this one.

“Mandy” movie poster

To conclude, I have to say that the movies Nicholas Cage has made in his mid to late 50s are bending toward a quirky and chaotic quality that can’t be easily dismissed. Yes, there are duds, and perhaps Cage himself is a dolt of a dude. But with roles like the ones I’ve listed above, he’s continuing to show himself to be a capable, if odd, actor more often than not.

Seize The Sixth, Again

Background

Eric L. Sweet left us suddenly on April 6, 2015, at age 44. Sweet was a beloved member of the MU Art faculty, having worked at MU since 2012 as an Adjunct Assistant Professor, teaching Printmaking, Drawing and 2-D Design courses. He was an alumnus of the Art program, having earned both his BFA (1997) and MFA (2011) from the University of Missouri. In 2008, he received an MA in Printmaking from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Sweet was an active member of the Southern Graphics Council International and the College Art Association.

The “Running Devil” icon that was embroidered on one of Eric’s shirts.

To celebrate Eric’s life and positive role as an educator, Sweet’s wife, Catherine Armbrust, established The Eric Sweet Exhibition & Speaker Series to continue passing on his gift. I have created a series of work celebrating Eric almost every Seize the Sixth, and this year is no different. I will be donating 100% of the sales of these pieces to the Fund. This program was created because he strongly believed in the importance of community accessibility to art and encouraged meaningful conversations about the state of contemporary art. Funding this annual exhibition and speaker series for the gallery is the perfect way to make contemporary work accessible to the MU and Columbia communities, and to honor this special man who made an impact on so many lives. In fact, the initial funding goal was met in 2021 and the very first iteration of The Eric Sweet Exhibition & Speaker Series took place on December 6, 2021. See the exhibition poster here.

Look over my limited series of CNC relief cuts, posted below. If you’d like one, contact me. You’ll get an icon of Eric’s life and students and community members will get to see art because of the donation I make from the sale. As Eric (and his 4th grade teacher) might say, “You don’t HAVE to, you GET to.”


The Artwork

I’ve made eight artworks for Seize The Sixth this year. There is one group of five CNC relief cuts that feature the classic “running devil” icon that Eric had embroidered on one of his work shirts. Below the devil is featured part of Eric’s axiom, “YOU GET TO.” It’s a proclamation of hopefulness and gratefulness. Here’s a detail of the Running Devil carving if you want to see a close up view.


There are three of these – just the Running Devil without the text.

How to get one?

I can take PayPal, CashApp, and Venmo (click each for a link to my info). If you’re local you can give me cash. The cost $50 each for these. Ones with text are 5.25×5.75 inches and those without text are 4.5×5.5 inches. Each piece is made on a PVC sheet and painted in gold spray paint. Each is signed and numbered. The ones with text are numbered 1 through 5 and the ones without text are numbered 1 through 3. First come, first serve. Feel free to email me if you have any questions – balloum (at) missouri (dot) edu.

Why no Sweet Audio this year?

Most of the time I’ve been able to put together a compilation of classic Sweet audio clips. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any more usable clips this year. There’s a chance I still have some in the depths of my files, but I just couldn’t locate anything for this year. In lieu of that, please head over to SoundCloud and check out the previous years’ offerings!

Ballou SweetTalk collections for 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.


Now, go Seize the Sixth! Remember… you don’t HAVE to, you GET to!

Come and See

This past week I watched the most significant film I’ve seen in the last few years: Come and See, a 1985 Soviet-era anti-war film. Taking place in what is now Belarus in 1943, the film traces a few epic, devastating days in the life of a teenager who “joins” the local Soviet resistance to German incursions.

I will not spoil the power of this film by giving too much away. I will say that this film, at its core, shows the radical transformation of a smiling, whimsical, 13 or 14 year old boy into a gray, hollow wreck in a matter of hours. His heart and mind are smashed against the brutality around him. He sees not only death up close but also the horrendous inhumanity that war brings forth in our species. Scenes of almost fairy-tale light and mood give way to instances of the most egregious forms of torture, humiliation, and murder. We witness these acts conducted by carousing, laughing, crazed soldiers, while inhabiting the view of our protagonist, Florya.

Aleksey Krachenko as Florya.

Aleksey Kravchenko’s performance as Florya is beyond incredible. To think he was able to inhabit this character at the age of 14 is amazing, and I can’t imagine that he escaped the production without some trauma. Many sources claim live ammo was used, and he was certainly very close to real incendiary devices, raging fires, and extremely gory depictions of dead people. His performance was beyond things such as honors or awards. Simply legendary.

For a significant portion of the film Florya is thrown together with Glasha, a strange, beautiful young woman who sometimes sees and says what Florya can’t. There are several intense scenes between the two characters. One, where they dance in raindrops after narrowly escaping death is contrasted with a later sequence where they struggle neck-deep in a bog, frantic and animalistic.

Olga Mironova as Glasha.

The film is built using historical accounts as its backbone, but there are threads of magic realism here as well. Certain moments strike me as direct references to iconic moments in film classics, such as the sliced eyeball in Un Chien Andalou (1929) or the screaming nurse in Battleship Potemkin (1925). But the piece is a work entirely singular and unique. There are moments unlike any I’ve seen, and from my cursory exploration online I can see that many of the most important cinematographers and directors of photography in film cite it as an influence.

The cow scene from Come and See is brutal.

The thing about watching Come and See right now – and why it’s essential viewing – is that it highlights the Russian war against Ukraine in stark ways. One reason this film got past the Soviet censorship machine was that it demonstrated the pure barbarity of the German invasion. But it is easy to understand that the filmmaker, Elem Klimov, was making a broader point about what war – both in terms of materiel and the political machinations behind it – does to people. There is an cold, bloody irony in the fact that a Russian film from the late Cold War era shows the illegitimacy of Russian warmongering today. There are young men and women, just like Florya and Glasha, lying dead on the streets and countryside of Ukraine right now, and their deaths are every bit as criminal as those depicted in Come and See.

Florya, held up to pose for a picture with German soldiers.

So, yes. Come and see, and then reject evil of war.


Main website for the film at Criterion Collection.

More info about the film on Wikipedia.

A Talk at Missouri Valley College

On February 25, 2022, I had the privilege to meet with students and give a talk over at Missouri Valley College. It’s about an hour away from Columbia where I teach, and the talk was in support of my exhibition at the college, Digital Art: Exploration and Education. I gave a brief overview of my use of digital tools, from nearly 25 years ago through today. If you’d like to watch the talk, I’ve added in all of the visuals I used, but I also worked in supplemental videos and other support information to bring more background to the talk. Many thanks to Mary Linda Pepper Lane, Sarah Fletcher, and Mike McJilton for their hospitality and conversation during my visit.

Below are a number of the works I showed in that exhibition. Left to Right, Top to Bottom: “Young Joe,” “Cardiac ICU,” “Touched Pelvis,” “Color Figure Study,” “Hitt Street Parking Garage,” “Jesse,” “Self Portrait With Neck Girth.”

A Conversation About Stephen Brown’s Paintings

From a conversation between David Gracie and Matt Ballou on January 15, 2022 in Lincoln, NE. Editing for clarity and length.


Stephen Brown – Ruhan (left) and David (right). Oil on wood. 2000.

Matt: The installation of this exhibition isn’t chronological. What was the idea? That there would be pictorial themes or color themes?

David: That’s right. It’s not chronological, but there are some pieces that are grouped together, you know? There are pictorial themes, and I think that kind of like went with the territory, with the type of painting he was doing at any particular time. So there’s landscapes, still life, portraits, and figures.

This exhibition is a little bit different because there are some older works that are kind of out of context, but I thought they were worth putting in just because of the spirit of the show. So there are two rooms of main, finished works, and then there is also the room of only unfinished work.


David: These two real highlights of his portrait painting. I love these two paintings. If I could have gotten the George Tooker portrait, it would have probably been my favorite one. I remember when I had him as a teacher, he talked about that George Tooker painting as being the best portrait he’d ever done.

I think the different conventions (landscape, portrait, still life), you know, they all kind of add up to the same type of thing. But this (show) is a result of the work that was available. And also, in some ways, this is the way he would have done it (a range of whatever was available at the time). Because, when he had shows, they would be called just, like, “NEW WORK.” And then there would be some thematic shows that the galleries would put on, like Alan Stone Gallery and those 57th street galleries that would do still life or portrait shows. Because this work is all coming from Gretchen, his widow, there are 16 portraits of his son, Rushton.

Gracie holding Rushton in Bedroom, Massachusetts oil on wood, 2009, verso of Portrait of Gretchen, oil on wood, 2009
Stephen Brown – Unfinished Light Bulb. Oil on wood. 2009.

Some of these works he was doing when I was a student. He was talking about Van Gogh’s boots and that Diamond Dust Shoes essay, the Fredrick Jameson one.

Matt: I love the shadow here. 

David: I love the fact that the boots can’t sit there. There’s not enough space. They poke out into our space because like that line doesn’t make room for the heels. The heels couldn’t live there.

Matt: There’s a simultaneous compression and expansion to it.


Matt: I feel like there’s like a luminous opacity in so many of these. It reminds me of some passages in Paul Fenniak’s work. There’s a sense of it being so thick but also almost phosphorescent…

David: You can see that it (Brown’s approach at times) was very much like Lennart Anderson. And then over the years, you know, he would [shift influences and interests], so he went through these different, completely different phases, you know? And he was part of a whole group of artists that were meeting together (in the 70s and 80s), the Alliance of Figurative Artists.

Matt: What’s the timeframe on making these works? Did he have them scattered around the studio and he was working on them over months and years?

David: Yeah, off and on like that. He would work on the paintings for a very long time. That’s how he worked, though; he would do forty paintings at a time. There’s a lot of on these, too. 

Matt: I mean, the thickness of that! There’s so many layers of glaze… almost like it’s got the presence of light and flesh at the same time. That quality.

David: He would pile it on and then sand it off – power sand – the surfaces down. He worked in a barn, too. You can see it in the other room (featuring unfinished works), like, different stages of development. Also, on this Gillespie (portrait) in this room.

David Gracie pointing out some details.

Importantly, he lived near Gillespie in Massachusetts, and he was really into Hans Holbein and Spanish still life painting. Towards the end of his life, he was really into self-portraits. He also painted a bunch of trees, like these weeping cherry trees. 

When I was there (Hartford School of Art) he was the kind of guy who would get up every morning at 5:00 a.m. to play tennis. He was strapping, super energetic, and full of exuberance when I knew him. I knew him from ‘97 to 2002 and then kind of lost touch with him. Then he got sick. Some of the students he had after my time said he taught in a wheelchair.


David: Gretchen told me how sometimes she would go out to his studio and say something about a painting, like, “Oh, I really like this part.” And then she’d go to bed, only to hear the power sander start… he’s just sanding that part off! 

So, it’s like these things are so precious, but at the same time he’s so willing to just power sand that shit off! There’s such precision and detail but none of it was safe. On one hand he’s got all of this chaos going on – some of these look like they were laying on the floor and he’s stepping on them, you know? But then you go over into the other room and see some of those perfect portraits with incredible frames, and the contrast is so intense.

Matt: But then you think, did they exist in that (chaotic) state at some point? You know what I mean? I think they probably did. 

David: Yeah, I would say they did exist in that state at some point. And you can see some that are almost there but not quite…

Matt: Because it seems to me that the cohesion that the finished ones have – some of these more refined ones – that cohesion is based on it having come through that unsafe process. I do like that a lot of these things require a sitting period. They’re not alla prima at all. The accrual has to happen.


Matt: Is this show kind of like a labor of love for you? The essay you wrote is great, and I especially like the title, the poetry of the title (“The Aching Beauty of It All: Paintings by Stephen Brown”). You know, it’s almost like something that he wouldn’t have done for himself. But that’s the way he talked about painting, right? Like, the feeling in the moment of painting, in the moment of observation. 

David: Yeah. I mean, that’s what his painting was about. It was in the painting. He didn’t write shit about it. Writing was too literal. So I was self-conscious about [writing about it] because it is almost like, too much, too earnest or something. 

Details of Stephen Brown – Onion. Oil on wood, 2006.

Matt: But that’s kind of the way it all is! 

David: Yeah, the whole thing is so earnest. But it’s not like some of the over-the-top, romantic painters out there taking themselves too seriously. He wasn’t self-centered.

Matt: It’s straight. There’s no affectation. That’s the difference. It’s not trying to be something other than what it is. 

David: I just wonder if other people see it as if there is too much, of it being on the edge of too earnest. Perhaps there is some affect in that way.

Matt: Well, that’s half my problem over the last 15 years: with all the horrible things going on in the world, can I believe in the earnestness of this act (painting, art making)? But the sense of living in the work is so present here; obviously he’s worked on some of these for hundreds of hours, potentially. So much evidence of time and attention.

Detail of Stephen Brown – Still Life with Apple Blossoms, oil on board. 1997.

David: With the amount of sanding and number of layers going on we have no real idea how he got from A to Z. Maybe I have a closer idea of how they work than someone generally, but still, I’m not quite sure. I think his works are hard to unravel in terms of how they feel.

But that was his thing. 


Matt Ballou is an artist and writer who teaches at The School of Visual Studies at the University of Missouri.

David Gracie is a painter and professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

“The Aching Beauty of It All: Paintings by Stephen Brown” will remain on view at Elder Gallery in Nebraska Wesleyan University’s Rogers Fine Arts Building at 5000 St. Paul Avenue, Lincoln, NE through January 30, 2022


Subway Abstractions, Chicago

More than 20 years ago, when I first came to Chicago to study art at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, the city shocked me. I was constantly in awe of the people, the exchange of pressure between the land and the lake, and the iconic architecture and spaces that mark this quintessentially American city.

I spent a good deal of time at subway stations and riding the L train rails. So much of what I remember about Chicago is from the vantage points the CTA afforded me. A lot changed in the years I spent there, and I witnessed a lot of those changes aboard the L or from the buildings where I took my classes at SAIC. I was always seeing through the modulating weather and variances of sunlight and season. It all kept my attention. Light, glass, rock, water, cloud, steel, snow, or asphalt; they all intrigued me.

My dad’s trusty Minolta was with me during those years, and I took many hundreds of photos. It was an attempt to understand what my eyes were being drawn to, and how my Eye – my aesthetic sense – wanted to see. It’s wonderful now, in looking back, to see how I was being developed (through education) and developing (through instinct and choice) the categories of judgement and intuition that would inform all of my work right up to today.

Among those photos is a series of pictures of empty signboards within subway stations. Often they would be left open for a while when advertisements were being changed out, but many times they stayed vacant for weeks on end. They had an austerity, and seemed to me to speak the language of modernist abstraction and abstract expressionism. What was interesting to me, beyond that formal similarity to intentionally crafted artworks, was that these were the result of the natural environment of the subway. The dust and grease and grime combined with blowing air – almost like a lung or the systolic/diastolic rhythms of the heart – to create strange inflow behind the placards of ads.

In other cases, workers who routinely painted around the frames designed to hold the placards, would inadvertently create dynamic fields of shapes via over-spray. This was a rhythm, too, a movement of maintenance and service reflecting the attempt to keep these arterial passageways operating. The spaces within the ad frames were a different kind of arena, moving at a different pace from the rest of the L train structures.

Thus that area behind the ads became a kind of palimpsest of the subway, but also of the city itself. The deposits of dirt accumulated in swaths of gray scale gradients. Intimately connected to the subway tunnel textures and layers of paint, the dust-fields were allowed to stick, protected behind ad boards for who knows how long.

Once revealed, these delicate, dirty paintings, which had been made by the trains and the people and the detritus of Chicago, held (it seemed to me) beauty. I loved them. I rode the L looking for them at every stop. I took dozens of photos. Perhaps one day I’ll try to publish them in a better form – I still have the original negatives, after all – but for now, I present a few of them here.