Like many kids I was I influenced by the work of Beverly Cleary. She died today at age 104. That’s a solid life.
Perhaps as important as her writing were the illustrations and book designs that went with them. This one in particular has stuck in my mind for more than 40 years:
This particular edition – put out by William Morrow & Company – was in my home. I think the font, the colors, and (obviously) the illustrations by Louis Darling made a huge impression on me. I recall thinking about how the motorcycle that Ralph rode was depicted to show speed, how the idea of “small” was presented, and how the story could be shown with such subtle, one-note clarity.
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.
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).
The notion of coram deo is a theological and para-theological idea that has been held forth at various times. I’ve even got a pastor friend who has a church named Coram Deo. Essentially, the Latin phrase means “in the presence of God” or “before the face of God.”
Well, I guess some would argue that we’re all always in the presence of the divine, but even the bible says that no one has ever seen God (Exodus 33:20). Elsewhere, however, we note a caveat:
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” – 1 John 4:12
If we love, we see God. Divine love is manifest in that seeing.
I decided to do a little survey of my studio. Who is here? In loving, where do I see God?
I have a lot more faces and visages and signifiers of people in my studio. These suffice.
Look around… see who you love and who loves you. In acknowledging them – in believing that they are real – you make divine love real. When we don’t believe that others are real – that their desires, experiences, or feelings are somehow not like ours – we dehumanize them. We de-divine their reality. They are miracles. We are privileged to be in the presence of other motes of matter that catch the divine light.
The last few weeks have been pretty intense. Sickness, heavy schedules to manage, deadlines to meet, presentations to give, paintings to complete and ship out… I’ve been overloaded.
Last week, though, I decided to step away from my “responsibilities” for a few hours and work with my oldest kiddo to make a new birdhouse/birdfeeder.
She created the designs for the outside and made the primary choices for how the finished house would look. We talked about how birds would access the house, where food would be, and how we would like to be able to see the ornithological engagement from the comfort of our living room.
Next came the fabrication. I handled the big saw cutting to assure the pieces were proper size, and then I cut the angles for the pentagonal house to fit together. Miranda did some of the chop saw work and she absolutely doing the gluing and brad gunning. She wanted to get her very own brad gun (Alison said no)!
After everything was settled and we gave it a night to dry, we put it in place. It’s an epic birdhouse/feeder combo just right for the Ballou Homestead.
I am sure we’ll get some great bird visitors over to Miranda’s construction soon – maybe even a couple will stay. In any case, however, I know it was a few hours better spent in making memories and helping Miranda grow more confident with ideas, creativity, and tool use than it would have been in filling out forms or doing some administrative task.
The second iteration of an exhibition exploring trends in contemporary abstract art is now on view at Nebraska Wesleyan University’s Elder Gallery. The first version of the show took place last year at The University of Missouri and the exhibition will travel again in 2019 and 2020.
The main change in this 2018 version is that additional artists have been added, moving the roster up to 20 individuals – 13 women and 7 men. The works have also grown in diversity, with more sculpture, assemblage, photography, and fibers works entering the constellation.
This show centers on the work of Anna Buckner, Sharon Butler, and Gianna Commito. A constellation of 17 other artists appear in this view into contemporary abstraction, and their work incorporates Painting, Drawing, Digital Drawing, Photography, Fibers, Assemblage, Collage, Sculpture, Relief carving, and other forms.
Sarah Arriagada, Anna Buckner, Sharon Butler, Gianna Commito, Ryan Crotty, Joel T. Dugan, Dan Gratz, Michael Hopkins, Erin King, Kristen Martincic, Marcus Miers, Hali Moore (Oberdiek), Justin Rodier, Elise Rugolo, Amanda Smith, Lauren Steffens, Sumire Taniai, Jm Thornton, and Jennifer Ann Wiggs have work in this exhibition. Click on their names to see their websites and find out more about their work.
As you can see from the exhibition listing at NWU’s website, I’ll be at the gallery on December 7 to talk about the show and answer questions. I’ll also spend some time meeting with students and engaging with the school community. I love the chance to spend time in the space with the work and field questions in the moments of viewer experience. The works are meant to be seen, interpreted, and extrapolated.
These few views can’t really give you a true impression of the show. I hope if you’re nearby you’ll stop in. My efforts to curate interesting collections of works are definitely becoming more and more important to me as an artist and educator. Particularly, with an exhibition such as this one, I am afforded the chance to expand and contract a specific intellectual and aesthetic gesture. I find that tremendously exciting. This iteration of the Restraint and Limitation show is probably the most expansive version that will happen, so it’s intriguing to sense how constrained it still feels. I am passionate about small works that distill meaning and experience, defying long-held notions about what art is supposed to do.
To close out this announcement post, here’s the bit of writing I had affixed to the title wall:
The logic of abstraction cannot be reduced to a few dudes painting in mid-20th century America. This exhibition is meant to present another view. Anna Buckner, Sharon Butler, and Gianna Commito, the three core artists presented here, show commitment to the aesthetics and procedures inherent in abstract painting while bringing diverse pressures, materials, and processes to the form.
Examples of various line manifestations from my foundations drawing course.
I’ve taught hundreds and hundreds of students beginning observational drawing methods for over a decade at Mizzou. This is something I’ve been stimulated, encouraged, and challenged by. It’s wonderful to be a part of an ancient tradition.
One of the main points of the first few weeks of my Drawing: Materials and Methods course (foundations level drawing for beginning students) is the notion that line, in and of itself, doesn’t make an illusion of space (fig. A). Rather, value – the quality of light and dark – creates a perception of space (fig. B, C). To develop value we accumulate lines, adjust pressure on the tool, or blend the material with which we’re drawing (among other actions) in order to attenuate or amplify the line quality. The coalescing lines form a varied superstructure representing – in 2D form – the perception we have of 3D space (fig. D). These and many other lessons are certainly intuitive and, though they are not an exclusive method, do help novices recognize space and how to translate it. The first few drawings my students make are centered around these concepts. It was Professor William Itter’s Fundamental Studio Drawing text that I used in developing my own pacing, scope, and sequence in the teaching of Beginning Level drawing.
At Indiana University, Itter was a strong force. Having taught there for more than 35 years when he retired in 2009, Bill crafted and then honed a foundational drawing system that influenced me and many of my fellow grads. Over the years a number of the projects he either developed or adapted have been a part of my teaching. In particular, I have been inspired by his Cornice Combo and Linear Topographic Contour projects. Most of us ended up with physical copies or PDF prints of Bill’s collection of projects and syllabus materials (pictured above).
I think you can see the through-line of intention when you see Bill’s project examples and compare them to what I do in class. While I no longer directly reference Professor Itter’s text, it is a strong part of the pedagogical lineage I claim as an educator. Below you can see some of Itter’s Radial and Lateral Extensions, which were influential in my own Atmospheric Beams project.
Atmospheric Beams by Robert McAnelly. 18×24 inches.
Of all of the various projects crafted by Bill that I used back in the early days, only three are truly and deeply connected to my foundations drawing teaching today. Of primary importance is Meandering Band, as well as the aforementioned Atmospheric Beams. You can see that Professor Itter’s example images are still being reiterated through time in the work of my students.Notice how this Cornice Combo image relates to my recent students’ Meandering Band works:
Meandering Band by Hannah Westhoff. 18×24 inches, graphite on paper.
Professor Itter used many examples of gradients in his projects, and he began by asking students to conceptualize line quality through the idea of space and physical pressure upon the tool (at least that’s how I integrated his ideas into my thinking). So sample studies from Itter such as this one (which I use as a first class ice breaker project)…
…translate into more formal Meandering Band works such as this:
Meandering Band by Katie O’Russa. 18×24 inches, graphite on paper.
Meandering Band by Seth Steinman. 24×18 inches, graphite on paper.
My ultimate aim in carrying on a very truncated version of Bill’s foundational drawing projects is really an attempt to establish the importance of observational iteration in my classes. All of my classes are, at their deepest center, about attention and awareness. My hope is that continuing to use a few of Professor Itter’s projects my students gain an understanding of what their eyes are doing in the world. The way we amalgamate visual and material structures into meaningful ideas is part of what makes us human. Now that we are living in an age where algorithms designed to manufacture our purchasing consent drive much of our cultural events and expressions, it is so important to grow in our awareness of how we are being manipulated by these systems. This understanding begins with a knowledge of visual dynamics and the ability to take command of how our eyes operate. I think Itter knew this when he created his foundational drawing projects, and I try to bring that tradition of thoughtfulness into the 21st century.
Miranda Grace helping me with my large mural project, 2018.
My first born child is a spitfire eight year old. She’s great at math. She’s dramatic and feels all the things SUPER intensely. She’s a very good swimmer (winning some heats locally) and is the unequivocal leader of her siblings. She loves horseback riding, Transformers, and Narnia. She has always been a passionate creator; she’s burned through reams of paper and thousands of pens, pencils, and markers. She LOVES joining me in the studio. Recently she helped me out with a large mural I’m working on. She’s a pretty amazing kid. Here’s some of her recent work:
Miranda Grace Ballou. Untitled Abstraction. Acrylic on cardboard, 24×18 inches, 2018.
Miranda has started to get very interested in symmetry and creating katywompus abstractions based on a kind of ‘across the surface’ balance. I really like these. Here are a few more.
Miranda Grace Ballou. Untitled Abstraction. Acrylic on MDF, 20×23 inches, 2018.
Miranda Grace Ballou. Untitled Abstraction. Acrylic on MDF, 6×13 inches, 2018.
Miranda Grace Ballou. Untitled Abstraction. Acrylic on panel, 16×20 inches, 2018.
My daughter is also very much into working with fabrics and paper. She creates books – stories of every day events – and illustrates them. She makes games, and cuts out all of the pieces and creates the rules. She has made costumes, crowns, and jewels – all out of paper. Cardboard boxes have become space ships and forts. Recently she created – totally unprompted and with (as far as I can tell) no context – a sort of paper and fabric piece that functions as both a wall hanging and a skirt. Check it out.
The front side is pictured here on the left. The verso is on the right. When I was taking these photos she was annoyed that I wanted to take a picture of the back, but it’s amazing. She’s using staples to hold layers of various fabrics, paper, adhesive stickers and sheets, as well as post-it notes and tissue paper together. When hanging, she says it’s titled The Straightened Skirt. In this form it’s about 50 by 10 inches in size. Here’s Miranda modeling it in skirt mode:
Anyway, I think she’s pretty awesome. Each of my kiddos has been inspirational, and I expect they will all eventually have their own spot on my blog. I’m so thankful for these kids and their creativity and powerful presence in my life. They have made my work and teaching so much more rich and strange.