Swansong for the Williamsburg Scene: Mike Ballou at Pierogi
Mike Ballou: Mud and Toys at Pierogi
January 8 to February 7, 2016
177 North 9th Street, between Bedford and Driggs avenues
Brooklyn, (718) 599-2144
Mike Ballou seems never to have met an artist, writer or musician he couldn’t collaborate with. Or a pet: in his current show at Pierogi, Ballou turns dog-chewed plastic toys into rhizomes—damaged germs from which the artist engineers tentative extrusions and wiry growth. These wobbly taproots, which he then fattens with clay and epoxy, can subsume the identity of the original object, especially since Ballou unifies the aggregating forms with a single richly-saturated pigment: dry cobalt blue or cadmium yellow; a rubbed clay color; a dusted brown color
In some cases, Ballou links up extrusions into simple hoops which are leaned or wedged like kids’ toys, or wall-mounted like an ogre’s earrings. More often, the linkages complexify into geo-figural-botanical puzzles, at which point the sculptures begin to wrestle with themselves. A tabletop piece called Round (all works 2013-15) seems to depict a beheaded action figure in surrender to more powerful forces, or a martyred saint on bended knee (kindred spirit to Mary Carlson’s gracefully clunky figurines). Here the rust-colored extrusions suggest the umbilical casting tubes of a lost-wax bronze left in place. They bind him, pin him down, all the while giving him life.
Other Way, larger and intensely blue, is more antic, frazzled. It might be a time-lapse diagram of a hog-tied prisoner struggling to put on his glasses. The masticated premise of these works lends them a quality of goofy calamity somewhere between Robert Rauschenberg and William Wegman. There are also affinities with the Giacometti-redux guano sculptures of Charles Long, and by extension, with what Andrea Scott (reviewing Long in Time Out) identified as the “scatological lineage of modern sculpture” of Piero Manzoni, Dieter Roth, George Maciunas, Paul McCarthy, and Tom Friedman.
Besides collaboration, crudely competent improvisation, as on a sketchy construction site, is the hallmark of Ballou’s approach. Several sculptures perch on rough plaster ice floes supported by a tripod of bendy scraps you might use to stir paint. The sculptures dip their toes over the side and even intertwine with the precarious engineering below. Other works cantilever off the top of a table or hide under it (where one can also find rubber-stamped copies of a prose poem by Kurt Hoffman, a stealth collaboration). Several hook into the ceiling and hang like snakes that have given up the ghost, or just want you to think they have. They lie in ambush, perhaps, for the meatiness of Louise Bourgeois’s hanging works, or the pure ponderousness of Julian Schnabel’s.
In one gallery of Ballou’s 2013 “Raw/Cooked” exhibition, which infiltrated the Brooklyn Museum on every floor, the artist turned canine handiwork into hideously charming ceramics that were installed alongside Colonial American dinnerware. I should mention my own participation in the Brooklyn Museum show as one of five writers of accompanying texts; I have collaborated in various ways with the artist over the years, like scores of others, and I make no claim, here or anywhere, to be objective. But it’s worth noting that the full spectrum of Ballou’s artistic energies would remain invisible to critical dialogue unless reported on from within; only a beneficiary of his lightly magnetic hand in organizing ephemeral performances and collaborative events can evaluate Ballou’s commitment to art as a medium for “fostering conditions of exchange” (as he recites in a 2011 James Kalm YouTube interview).
A range of Ballou’s multifaceted activities, many collaborative, were on dispersed display in his Brooklyn Museum show –– including an avalanche of portrait dog masks; a quick and witty window treatment which sprinkled hallucinatory color across an elevator lobby; and freshly-minted super 8 films accompanied by a live band. The general public must have gotten some idea of Ballou’s “let’s put on a show!” attitude, but without actually having participated, even astute viewers could hardly be expected to grasp how the artist stirs up “scene” energy as a moral and creative precept.
The sculptures currently on view at Pierogi are part and parcel of Ballou’s refined ambivalence about making beautiful things, an attitude inseparable from his stubborn optimism about the studio as an unpretentious laboratory/clubhouse with a semi-open door. Ballou’s small East Williamsburg compound remains intact as “luxury” towers rise on every side, and the adaptable artist credits the sea of crappy stucco as inspiration for the new sculptures’ dangling, jerry-rigged restlessness. Coincidentally, Pierogi will be moving its main gallery to the Lower East Side after this show (Pierogi’s The Boiler remaining open, for now, in Vegas-ifying Brooklyn), so let’s just call it a closing party for the Williamsburg Scene, which, to the extent it existed, ran through Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson’s Pierogi and Mike Ballou’s numerous collaborative projects.
In its swan song, the gallery’s secondary room seems oddly enlarged (John Phillip Abbott is on view in the front gallery) and I found myself wandering through Ballou’s installation as though it were a cumulative, radiant, 3-D painting. Bending space with weirdly animistic strands of pure color, Ballou might be a “Rope Dancer,” who “Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows” to quote the title of Man Ray’s optically enthralling, chance-assisted 1916 masterpiece. The other Man Ray, Wegman’s canine muse, has left his chewy mark too, just in case anyone starts to take this stuff too seriously.