The vibrant, abstract work of Matt Ballou will be unmistakable when you enter the January Exhibit. While the artist is new to the Sager Braudis docket this year, he's been a staple of the Columbia art community for some time, reaching many people not only through his painting, but as an instructor and mentor as well. Gallery Director Hannah Reeves asks Ballou about the ideas and techniques behind his work in this week's blog post. Make sure to see Ballou's work in person during the January Exhibit, through the 27th.
REEVES: In a way, it seems people might need less explanation–fewer words–to connect with non-objective abstract work, and yet the absence of a describable referent can sometimes be intimidating. How do you recommend people approach and think about your work?
BALLOU: My main advice is for viewers to trust their eyes. How are you being led to move through the piece? What stops you? What causes you to move faster or more slowly in your movements? The reality is that all compositions–whether representational or not–are the result of the visual dynamics of mass shapes and linear structures. My own representational work is deeply connected to the history of formal arrangements of shapes and colors. In this current work I'm also thinking a lot about the feeling of seeing–my own perception of it. So my awareness of how I experience space, light, color, and interaction of forms–obviously in terms of the actual things I see every day–is informing the choices I make in the artworks. No one needs special knowledge to appreciate color or the relationship of pictorial information.
REEVES: I know that in addition to a variety of painting, drawing, and printing techniques, this body of work includes some found wood. The fact that you describe its origin makes me feel that it must be a meaningful material for you. Could you talk about that?
BALLOU: I'm very interested in having framing or presentation materials have a life of their own, a life that does more than hold or delineate the artwork. In my recent works–say, over the last 8 years–formatting and framing have been huge to me. I have disrupted or restructured framing and surfaces to varying degrees a lot, and right now that's resolving into a kind of "shaped surface" approach. My main concern is that these images do not read as windows or doors. I always want a different zone of incident, a membrane we are obviously meant to see and to "pass through" but also one that is held in an active, rather than a passive mode. Traditional framing feels passive and institutional. I want to serve that history while simultaneously pushing it. So in this body of work I am using old dense oak in many cases. This is wood that was used to create sites of quiet study and attention–church pews and drawing desks–that were used for nearly 70 years in central Missouri. All artwork is about attention and inviting others to join me in paying attention. Re-purposing this kind of material into the frames of my work is a subtle way of asking viewers to bring that kind of devotional attention to the work. And it requires that I do that as well.
REEVES: Color is prominently noticeable in this work. Are you applying a particular color theory, or employing a certain technique that draws attention to your color choice? Do you restrict your palette in any decided way or to some end?
BALLOU: I do not employ any particular system. The colors that appear in the final state of the work are an amalgamation of those that I have used throughout the process of making the piece–sometimes over the course of several years. I tend to think of color as indicative of space, light, and position. I'm always looking for a way to make color hold a position in the field of view. I'm seeking density of surface, the accrual of information and strategies over time. I view the final work as an artifact left over after a series of interrogations. Sometimes this does create a chromatic restriction or a specifically-defined goal. Other time I discover what must remain over the course of the making.
REEVES: I hear that your kids are allowed in your studio. As a parent of similarly-aged children...I don’t know how that works out! How do you approach home-studio space and painting alongside little ones?
BALLOU: They offer great influences. Basically, it comes down to the fact that they do not know the history of art, art techniques, or art theory. This means they make and respond to their making in a free way that allows for influences and assumptions that are very different from the ones with which I operate. Their lack of knowledge results in marks, surfaces, and accumulations of materials that are more connected to their kinesthetic experience of play than to any history or conceit of meaning. I need that in my life.
REEVES: I always like to ask: What is your studio quirk?
BALLOU: I love to come to the studio and sneak looks at my works out of the corner of my eye. I want to be surprised by that glance. I want to experience it like catching a glimpse of a lover across a room. I'm always looking to be astonished in some way. You can often find me making a run past the studio door to take a furtive look.