Chan Marshall – she who records as CAT POWER – released the album The Greatest at a peculiar time for me… then again, when isn’t it a peculiar time?
It was 2006. I had finished grad school at IU and my partner and I had traveled to Italy to tag along with the IU summer trip. I was full – having seen many masters, finished a years-long course of intensive study, and imagining myself among my constellation of heroes.
My desire to do well and be great – to be masterful, to matter, to be effective – was intense. When I heard Marshall’s opening lines to The Greatest I burst into tears. It took me months to listen to the song without welling up.
“Once I wanted to be the greatest No wind or waterfall could stall me And then came the rush of the flood Stars at night turned deep to dust”
“Melt me down…
Leave no trace of grace…”
“For the lead And the dregs of my bed…”
“Lower me down…
Pin me in Secure the grounds For the later parade…”
Nearly fifteen years later it’s still powerful. I think Marshall saying “ONCE I wanted…” is even more poignant to me. In 2006 I resonated with the desire to BE great. But there is also the other side… the desire to HAVE BEEN great. To have wanted to be great “once” and then kind of learned and grown and gotten over it.
Easier said than done. Easier still when one has done something actually great. Worse when one has had the potential but has never been able to get there. To have been afforded so much, to have had so many chances. To have missed them.
Maybe getting older successfully is being able to say that “once I wanted” part without feeling desperate sadness. I guess I still have hope that I can do something transcendent as an artist. But we, in some sense, just do what we do. And what I have done isn’t particularly remarkable.
It’s nice to be able to surprise myself sometimes, even now.
But it’s a difficult time of endless distractions and urgent day-fillers. The days fill to weeks and weeks to months. What used to take a week now takes 18 months. Someday there won’t be 18 months left.
Never mind enjoyment or ambition. Just trying to get anything out takes just about everything.
My eldest child, Miranda, is quite the artist (on top of being intense, defiant, powerful, passionate, and smart). Recently she’s been making these very interesting flattened interior spaces.
The drawings show an interest in categorization and organizational meaning, which are two interconnected ideas that Miranda has always been focused on. Placement and scale appear to be very important to her right now, too.
There is also a straightening and flattening of space in these new pieces. This is a little different for Miranda as she does understand perspective to a degree and has shown knowledge of recession of space in the past. However, these works seem to me to be more about the idea of the scene and less about naturalistic space or light.
The way that forms extend unnaturally or terminate on two dimensional lines are unique aspects of these drawings. Above, see how the door extends into the floor or how the shelves stop right on the separation between the floor and the wall. These characteristics make the drawings function more as tableaux rather than structurally “correct” space depictions.
I’m interested to see how she combines the symbolic spaces of these drawings and the more expressionistic and observed spaces from her other drawings/paintings. I think that the organization and delineation of objects in her recent drawings are related to a desire for control. When she’s feeling more tense and uncertain, she wants to establish control. When she’s feeling more at ease and free her creates much more expressionistically and with fewer hard lines and forms.
I’ve taken Miranda on solo dates to museums a couple times (see most recently below) and she loves to do sketching from the master works and take in the quiet, calm spaces…
I am sure Miranda will keep growing as an artist and hone a unique way of making her experiences take shape in the world. ❤️
I decided to make a few strange and wonderful portraits for the spoooooky Halloween time, but it ended up turning into a whole family kind of thing. So here we are…
I had a fun time manipulating these in Procreate on my iPad Pro. Hope you enjoy them – or are freaked out by them. Don’t forget, fear and anxiety can (CAN, but not always DO) produce a redemptive tension. So go out there and watch The VVitch, or Hereditary, or Mandy, or Goodnight Mommy. Embrace it, then look towards a day of All Saints.
This birthday weekend I wanted to step out of the COVID haze – the fog of teaching, the smog of social distance, the stink of politics, the taint of racism – to celebrate these days I’ve had.
16,071 days in this life of mine.
Only 16,071. Seems that there should be more… or that, at least, I should remember more of them.
1,664 days since I suffered cardiac arrest. Almost 10% (9.658%) of my entire life I’ve lived AFTER that moment.
2,301 days since my first Wakonse.
2,301 days since establishing a new foothold in Michigan – I’ve had to miss Wakonse (Conference on College Teaching) twice since 2014; in 2016 when I had the heart attack I mention above, and 2020… thanks COVID.
2,764 days since China.
2,764 days since traveling around the world to meet a daughter, touching ancient stones, letting the jade work, and seeing the Emperor’s dragons.
3,783 days since Miranda.
3,783 days since my first child was born. I’ve had more radical changes in this quarter of my life than the rest… well, maybe not; the first ten years of a life sure consist of a lot of upheaval. I suspect Miranda’s 10 years have been at least as intense to her as my ten years with her have been.
4,760 days since I started teaching at Mizzou.
4,760 days of late night lesson planning, a few really long faculty meetings, a couple dozen graduate students, and many hundreds of undergraduates. 4,760 days of learning as I went. I’m still learning, even (especially?) in this COVID era, how to be a better teacher.
5,589 days since Italy.
5,589 days since the Uffizi, Pontormo, squid, table wine, cathedrals, trains, the infamous forehead hickie, and walking 10 miles per day.
6,295 days of marriage.
6,295 days of ups and downs and the mystery of where the road leads. In spite of it all it’s been grace and peace along the way. Mountain tops and dead ends, safe havens and strange switchbacks… I can still see the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Maine from here.
7,045 days since Ox-Bow.
7,045 days since arriving at Ox-Bow for the first time – a three month summer fellowship. Mmm…. Michigan. The transformational influences of the ancient Lake are still effective.
8,630 days days since I made a choice to change.
8,630 days days since decided to go to school and try to get trained as an artist. One of the best choices I ever made… I made it under a pickup truck in the snow and ice at 2:30 in the morning.
10,258 days since I was too old.
10,258 days ago I was too old to participate in the Rod and Gun Club Kids Fishing Derby at the Camden Reservoir. Seems minor, but it was a watershed moment.
12,641 days since the shuttle disaster.
12,641 days since the day in a Grove City, Pennsylvania classroom where my classmates and I watched the Shuttle Challenger blow up live on a TV in our 3rd grade classroom.
I’ve got a few more key memories from days prior to (or around) the ones above… but no solid dates. Shooting guns with Frobisher. Steaks with Palmer and Brett. Touring tornado devastation. Frozen drops of water on the picnic table in a smoking Yellowstone Park. Driving off the road into a cornfield with Chris. Sore throats with Robin. Reading Nabokov. Sweaty bread with Hoyt. Scratch-offs with Peter. Swearing Elaine.
A lone black man stands on a desolate mountainside. Over the course of repeated attempts to scale the height, he falls again and again, but returns to the climb in spite of his injuries. As he climbs he hears the sound of a traditional African-American work song; it rises and falls along with him. As evening closes in, the man pauses for a final attempt. The indignity of an unseen force holding him back – knocking him down – is challenged by his determination and the history (represented by the song) he carries within his body.
This performance was staged within the video game Grand Theft Auto V by Matthew Ballou in April 2020. Grand Theft Auto V is a 2013 action-adventure game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. All players start the game as an African-American character named Franklin Clinton. Centering a black male body as a main character in the game is significant in a variety of ways. By dislocating the only playable person of color from the criminal activity that the game encourages I decontextualize the purpose of the character and suggest other narratives for his existence.
Performed by Matthew Ballou in GTAV on an XBOX One, April-June 2020.
Featuring “Big Boy, Can’t You Move ‘Em” by Uncle Bradley Eberhard. Florida WPA Recordings, 1940 (AFC 1940/011), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Link: https://www.loc.gov/item/flwpa000375/
Miyoko Ito’s work has such intense gravity for me. In the midst of the high strangeness of our time I find solace in her works.
The only major professional goal I have left is to work on an exhibition or book about her work. It is a crime that we have dozens of books on the likes of Richter or Pollock but really only a single TINY volume on Ito – and it’s currently out of print.
I first encountered Ito’s work in person at the Roger Brown House in Chicago in the fall of 1999. I spent a good deal of time roving around the Chicago area to see all the Ito’s that are available in and around the city.
One of my main teachers at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was Barbara Rossi. Rossi is an incredibly influential artist and educator who knew Ito and impressed me with her own work and her knowledge of the contexts surrounding art making in Chicago.
In 2015 I got close to arranging an exhibition of Ito’s lithographs but could not secure proper funding and loans of works. I’ll try again sometime soon. In that process I began to correspond with Vera Klement, a contemporary of Ito and a paragon of Chicago art. Via email interviews I got some fun backstory on the life and times of Ito, Rossi, and Klement. I’d love to get the chance to explore these artists and their works again.
My favorite podcasts of 2019! I provide these in no particular order, but know that these are the podcasts that elicit a “I must listen ASAP once I see this in my podcatcher” response.
Click on the images to go to their sites.
These three are among my go-to podcasts about true crime. There is a consistent quality to these pods. They engage different parts of the world, focus on different aspects of the narrative, and provide unique access to varied levels of life experience. Casefile is perhaps the most serious, though both it and True Crime Garage showcase great research and preparation.
TCG’s end-of-the-year series on JonBenet Ramsey brought something new to that case, and made me rethink what I thought I knew. Also, their investigation of The Delphi Murders was powerful.
Casefile is – to me – the premiere Australian true crime podcast. An excellent team of researchers, evocative writing, and a perspective that highlights the real people at the center of these horrific stories make it indispensable. To see for yourself, check out the Beth Barnard story in Case 80.
I love discovering podcasts that you just HAVE to binge. You NEED TO KNOW. You NEED to follow the story. When it comes to this, I think there are a number of AMAZING podcasts out of Australia and Canada that REALLY do this well. Someone Knows Something, a podcast by Canadian award-winning filmmaker and writer David Ridgen is particularly strong (currently between seasons, but see Season 4 – from 2018 – especially).
CRIME, COMEDY, CRYPTOZOOLOGY, UFOLOGY, HIGH WEIRDNESS, UNCANNY VALLEY, ETC:
The LPOTL crew is pure joy for me. Henry, Marcus, and Ben are hilarious and irreverent, yet showcase great research and a well-crafted perspective on everything strange and uncanny. Just listen to the Spring-Heeled Jack episode (151 – Horrors of the UK) to get a feel for this essential podcast!
STAR TREK NERD ALERT:
I’m not even a little embarrassed to say that Ben Harrison and Adam Pranica have the Star Trek watch through thing locked down. Their expertise in film production and great mixture of reverence and willingness to poke fun at all things Trek make this really enjoyable – and hilarious – listening. Check out Episode 132: Captain Potter (TNG-S6E7) to experience The Greatest Gen in full effect.
THE REASONS WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS:
I listen to a bunch of political/current events/history podcasts, but these two are among the best. Robert Evans (follow him on twitter) runs Behind the Bastards. His intense journalism in war zones around the world led him to start profiling the bastards who have made the world the way it is today – from Jerry Falwell to Muammar Gaddafi. One of the most disturbing episodes was The School That Raped Everybody. You need to be in a good mental space while listening to that one. As Robert demonstrates, always keep your bricks, machetes, and bolt cutters handy.
Knowledge Fight is such a niche thing and I’m totally confused as to why I love it so much. I mean, a podcast breaking down the insanity of Alex Jones? I think part of the interest for me is that the hosts have a funny repartee batting Jones and his stupid conspiracy theories into the ground (like that scene in Casino).
Some years I do a year end list or two (Here’s 2016, 2015, and 2011). Why not? I mean, 95% of the lists out there are lame, so why not throw my 2 cents in to the hopper?
Top Songs of 2019 (which may or may not have been released in 2019)
Here are the songs that have dominated my Spotify listening the last year… If you’d like to take a listen, click on the Spotify Playlist Link here.
Timebends by Deerhunter from the album Timebends (2019)
A sprawling, rambling, operatic jam, this track is a phenomenal breath of fresh air. At nearly 13 minutes it has enough room to breathe and transform as it goes. It is a joy to take in.
Cop Killer by John Maus from the album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of ourselves (2011)
I discovered this ethereal, weird song while watching Russian Doll this year. The oddly (and almost cliched) vampiric delivery of the transgressive lyrics force a detached, otherworldly vibe.
Doin’ Time by Lana Del Rey from the album Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019)
Lana Del Rey is phenomenal mood-maker and NFR! is a great effort. I’m drawn to many songs on the record, but this is quintessential LDR. Bartender is also a standout track. My only real low for this album is the horrible cover art; get a graphic designer, Lana.
Tiberius by The Smashing Pumpkins from the album Monuments To An Elegy (2014)
Tiberius signaled a real return to form as the lead track on William Corgan’s reconstituted Pumpkins lineup in 2014… though I didn’t experience this album until 2019. It might as well have been recorded in 1996 for all the melodic bombast and lyrical melodrama it contains.
True Dreams of Wichita by Soul Coughing from the album Ruby Vroom (1994)
Mike Doughty‘s Soul Coughing made some of the most unique and catchy tunes of the 90s. True Dreams of Wichita – like many of the songs Doughty has written – is loaded with imagery and visual/linguistic puns. The phrase turning paired with a sharp evocation of location and emotion is just good poetry.
Pitch Or Honey by Neko Case from the album Hell On (2018)
Neko Case is nothing short of a national treasure. Outspoken (follow her on twitter [@NekoCase] for some serious fire) and totally aware of her power, Case brings intensity from the first note to the last on the Hell On album. Pitch Or Honey is the perfect song for an artist like me; the refrain “am I making pitch or honey?” is a question all creatives – indeed, all people – have to ask ourselves. I want to make sweet sustenance, not just crap to gum up the works. Neko knows.
I Only Play 4 Money by The Frogs from the album Starjob (1994)
I was introduced to this legendary shock/lo-fi/weirdo-rock band from Milwaukee, WI in 2001 while ensconced in the woods between the town of Saugatuck, MI and Lake Michigan. It was a strange time. Recently I’ve been obsessed with this song and the number of versions where the likes of Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan sing and play on the song. Go to YouTube and just search for the track to discover these funny, chaotic iterations.
Best Shows of 2019 (that I watched in 2019, at least)
Watchmen is an incredible thing to see exist as art in today’s America. It’s everything you want art to be – challenging, genre-breaking, character-driven but not subservient to tropes and minor concerns. While many producers of American culture believe that they can fulfill the representation of people of color or tell formerly-non-centered stories with token characters and shallow arcs (I’m looking at you, Disney) Watchmen doubles down on history, context, and powerful performances with developed characters. The ensemble cast is top notch, but Regina King (Sister Night) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Dr. Manhattan) absolutely dominate as the main characters. Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, and an amazing Louis Gossett Jr. anchor a group of actors – both veteran and very young – who really buy into the deep magic of the Watchmen universe in ways that give keen insights to what is happening with racism, rising nationalism, and the frayed edges of our political establishment right now… wow. All that and an alien squid shower.
Midsommar is a powerful film about family, death, belonging, and the social construction of meaning. The tension created between how death visits Dani’s typical American family and how it visits the cloistered, alien, cult-like community she visits in Sweden calls us to reconsider how we understand the trajectory and significance of our lives. Are these very different notions of human dignity, purpose, and value truly at odds? Might the strange, pagan ritual of Midsommar offer something altogether deeper for those who believe? Excellent, challenging film making.
Below is a bit of writing I have been banging around for the last number of years. This section is actually much less than half, but the rest of it isn’t ready. Today being my cousin’s birthday, and this text being about my time spent with him, I’m dedicating this post to him and sharing this present with everyone. – Matt Ballou, 12/15/2019
Nunc Perpetuus: Making Now Eternal
“One instant is eternity; eternity is the now.” – Wumen Huikai (1)
“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.” – T.S. Eliot (2)
On a brisk Sunday afternoon in April 1998 my cousin Christopher Metott and I ventured out onto the rocks atop Salmon River Falls near Altmar, NY. The photographs resulting from that excursion reflect – our differing aesthetics notwithstanding – the great affinity we share regarding time and experience. While our focus was often different, it is certain that we were often held in an otherworldly grip as we spent time out in the hills, fields, and woods we once called home. We went looking for landmarks, not of space on the land, but of life in the landscape of time. We wanted to set up those touchstones as a means of hope for what was to come and as a remembrance of what was gone behind us. In a way that seems, in hindsight, dramatically lucid and reasonable, we established these places to make sense of our past and to justify our future. We formed those experiences together, and it bound us as two journeying souls.
We had spent long, cold winter nights ensconced in nothing but our nylon tent and a bit of hope, almost daring the circulatory disorder that Chris had to take us on. We took the longer, back way up mountains just to say we’d done it – and paid the price. We fished tinkling little streams few people knew about, happily releasing our delicately armored catch. We took many expansive road trips out into the quiet upstate New York night to catch the wind off Lake Ontario, to bask in the deep stillness of Route 3 (The Star Road) at 3 in the morning, and to wander with the colonial ghosts lingering to the south. We witnessed those slumbering Adirondack giants – ancient and rounded – blacking out the starry canopy as we wove between their couched numbers. Then there were those northern light nights, which seemed like mystical initiations into A Great Mystery. We saw them for the first time in the deep cool of the earliest morning hours, streaking over us as we lay on our backs in our sleeping bags, gazing up into the glowing pinprick host above. Then again, years later, on the small island we’d gone to on an impulse, we witnessed the green and blue flaming curtains exploding over the low hills to the north, reflecting off the water and our eyes.
Yet there was always the backyard simplicity of the town where we’d grown up. Hiking out into the forests of tamarack and pine, through fields of corn and hay to find that perfect spot. The trees, paths, hills, stone fences, rocky streams, and rippling fields conjured our transition – like an incantation – from the daily concerns of siblings and chores to deeper, more satisfying meditations. We tried to maintain it. We stayed at Winter’s Night, stacking up those old field stones from the corner of the fence for our fireplace. Or maybe View would be our destination, with its mild overlook of the languid valley in which our hometown was situated. Sometimes we’d just sit in Whispering Pines, poking at our fire and laughing at those who’d never understand us.
There was always the ritual, the ceremony, of naming our places. They were our blameless sacred groves. Some names come to mind, some are lost in the mist for now, yet each can summon memories that speak not just about events and people, but also about feelings and our sense of the world. We’ve never stopped our efforts to be available to the creation of these sorts of signposts in the fabric of our time. We want them to catch us up when, lost in some future, we need to go back and forward in the same moment. To remember how it was and how it ought to be… and how it might be again. When we need to recall innocence and reinforce our will to be good and honest and kind in the world, such as it is. This is how we discovered morality for ourselves.
It was a morality mitigated by music as much as by place and time. We favored plaintive, earnest, digressive compositions that lent themselves to mythic application – everything from 70’s progressive art rock to weird new age kitsch to contemporary British hipster fare. It was always about mood, about ushering in wanderlust amid a sense of place. We wanted music that would work in tandem with the winter winds, the midnight sound of water on ancient shores, and dusky skies flecked with fiery clouds and a sweet breeze. In the end, we wanted to palpate the very feeling of being, the dearest knowing of our own experiences.
Through all of those experiences lay a thread of earnest documentation, a yearning to hold it fast, to remember it, to know it. Half the time we didn’t really know what the it was. We knew that it was what happened when the two of us where together, experiencing something with each other and with the world. We knew that it was a feeling of rightness, of sensing something beyond mere perception; something we only knew was there by sighting its position through each other in a mystical triangulation. It was a spiritual hope, a burning desire to be in life. To experience a fulfillment in the moment – a moment that could expand to fill eternity with its promise and light and perfection – was our aim.
A key component of our desire to hold fast to our experiences was to revisit our sacred places over and over again. This consistent returning – a physical, mental, and spiritual act – infused them with more memories, more mystery, and more access to that joyful transport of sensory perception we so earnestly sought. Sometimes we got it and sometimes we didn’t feel it so strongly, only to – upon remembering – find that it was still there. Thus a special mimetic fact was discovered: remembrance is often more powerful than the experience itself. Our shared remembering sometimes held the deepest connections to the timelessness we pursued.
What does any of the above have to do with a Sunday in April of 1998? Well, pretty much everything. Our different forms of expression (I am a painter and Chris is a photographer) have been informed by this lifelong urge to document, to earmark, to source those moments of insight that impact all the moments before and after. These are moments that become eternal in their influence and necessity; they make us who we are. We’ve tried to live in such a way that maintains those glittering glimpses of eternity.
“But even the unknown past is present in us, its silence as persistent as a ringing in the ears. And nothing is here that we are beyond the reach of merely because we do not know about it. It is always the first morning of Creation and always the last day, always the now that is time and the Now that is not, that has filled time with reminders of Itself.”
-Wendell Berry (3)
Wumen Huikai (1183-1260), translated by Stephen Mitchell from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, (Harper and Row, 1989).
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), from Four Quartets, (Faber and Faber, 1959 edition).
Wendell Berry (1934-), from Fidelity: Five Stories, (Pantheon, 1993 edition).