MICHAEL BALLOU Raw/Cooked
The Brooklyn Museum | April 12 – July 7, 2013
Under the auspices of the exhibition series Raw/Cooked, Michael Ballou presents a smart and challenging installment within the Brooklyn Museum’s institutional walls. This, the eighth exhibition in the sequence, played out the Williamsburg artist’s abiding interest in animals, culminating in the piece “Dog Years” (2013), in which more than 60 sculptural dogs heads (mostly mutts) spilled out of a vertical exhibition vitrine and onto the floor in the museum’s Decorative Arts wing. The animals, as animals often do, broke decorum in favor of canine disorder. One hesitates to ascribe too much subversion to the piece—these dogs are made of foam and are utterly unrealistic—but their collective presence underscored the essentially “raw” existence of living things, as opposed to the “cooked” nature of things that have been created. In Ballou’s case, the dogs were all acquaintances of his, lending a personal touch to what might be seen as a bizarre addition to an otherwise staid museum ambience. One feels vaguely distressed by all the heads pouring out of a narrow space, and it seems that Ballou, like many artists today, is intent on spelling out the difference between the outside energies of present-day life and those formal, inner spaces intended to preserve the past.
The light and sound installation, “Go-Go” (2013), conceived after another dog Ballou knows, continues his wry interventions. Light shines through a mobile hung from the ceiling and depicts the animal’s face, which shows up as shadows on two walls near the fifth-floor elevator. A rug, spotted with white paint and arcane abstractions painted in black, covers the floor. There is also a wall installation of plastic cups, some illuminated and some not, that throw a reddish glow across the ground. The stumbling block here has to do with the relations of each work to the other—and to the works’s general proposition in regard to the museum itself. It is hard to tell whether the irreverence is aimed at humor or at hostility, but that may be the actual point of the environment. Ballou’s low-culture devices bring a lot of energy into the room, and they make the humorous point that art is quite literally “going to the dogs.” It is a brave demotic, one that questions the implications of culture—high culture especially—by undermining our assumptions regarding what passes for art and what does not.
“Pencil Holders” (2013), the third part of Ballou’s installation, takes place on a shelf within the Luce Visible Storage/Study Center. Roughly a dozen or so clay sculptures, small and with flesh-like openings formed to hold pencils, take over the ledge and occupy a space within the other shelving, the latter reserved for “serious art.” Their very informality, both literal and figurative, holds out as a judgment of their surroundings. Linked to the sculptures are the fictional texts of six authors, invited by Ballou to respond to his work. The writings, which are capable of being downloaded with a smart phone, occupy a position very similar to the artist’s: they are smart, whimsical, and usually funny. But, truth to tell, this writer could not understand (except in the most tangential fashion) what “Pencil Holders” had to do with its surrounding objects. Again, this may well be part of Ballou’s intention, although here the whimsicality may be so arch as to cancel its own point. Generally speaking, it can be noted that Ballou is making a claim for the general public, whose taste usually stays in the present, rejecting older things for the excitement of what is current. His is a raw voice in a highly cooked environment.
200 Eastern Parkway // Brooklyn, NY
Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.