Our Weights by Matthew Ballou


In the summer of 2011 I began a lengthy email conversation with my main professor from graduate school, Barry Gealt. Barry is someone who’s continued to have authority to challenge me and I have always valued what I’ve learned from him; he’s been at least as influential to me since grad school as he was during it. Getting an email from him is always an invitation to think about things – life, art, or meaning – from a perspective I hadn’t been considering.

In the course of our summer email repartee, Barry suggested that I evaluate – or reevaluate, as the case might be – what the weight on my artistic shoulders is. What are the things that motivate me? What pushes me out of my comfort zones? What challenges me to do something more, or something different, in my work? What moves me beyond my assumptions?

These are all important questions. They’re certainly necessary to those of us who’ve made a life of art, but they’re also part and parcel of what it means to be a reflective human being. So I decided to sit down and try to enumerate for Barry what my “weights” are right now and how I’m thinking about them. By way of calibration: know that Barry and I had been talking about illustration as a particular avenue of image making, as well as the place of belief or spiritual motivation in the life of the artist. This is why these issues feature prominently in my “weights.”

My Weights, for Barry

As an artist I am not interested in argumentation about belief or proving anything about religion or spirituality. My work is really more about paying attention to evocative, relational experiences and making images that relate to those experiences.

To me, all artworks are simply artifacts of an individual having a focused, aware experience of being – what Gaston Bachelard called “the astonishment of being”. Think of it this way: An individual has an intense experience in the context of living that creates a sense of fullness, meaning, and direction. The artist is constrained by this experience and becomes pressurized to respond to it. There is an ebb and flow to this call and response, but it is a constant state for those of us who think like artists. An artwork is the overflow of the artist’s evocative experiences. It is an expression of the artist’s experience of being as filtered through his or her proclivities, influences, and frame of reference. Artworks are not merely pretty pictures or didactic declarations of information; works that fall into these categories fall short of the promise and purpose of art. The purpose of art is to translate an evocative experience of being and initiate/stimulate contemplative engagement in others who are willing to have it.

Artworks are reflexive, subjective expressions that proceed from our engagement with reality, whatever that engagement might be. The works become transmundane, evocative things that – when we actually submit to their influences – may function as relational conduits for us as an audience to sense and become more aware of being.

So I wouldn’t say that I’m a religious artist or that I’m trying to make declaratively spiritual pictures. It’s just that I think that everything is enchanted and that even the most banal subject matter can be made worthy of contemplation through contemplation and deep engagement.

Looking at artists like Titian or Guido Reni or Bellini or Tiepolo you can see that yes, the subject matter might be religious but the image is about being. Many of the images these artists made show true, deep, human engagement that goes far beyond merely expressing biblical doctrine or a mythological morality play. These works transcend the local meaning of the religious moment for which the image was made because the artist sensed deep currents of evocative life and worked from them.

Pontormo’s Deposition is perhaps the greatest example of this mode of artistic creation. It’s a consummately religious work with much to say theologically. But it transcends the situational “holiness” of its use and takes on a deeply evocative human meaning because of how it was made and how it has functioned over time. The spiritual context of his society certainly influenced Pontormo and was part of the reason why he made the work, yes. But his ability to take the image beyond doctrine – beyond information-transfer, beyond illustration, beyond proselytizing or argumentation – is related to how humane and sensitive his eye and mind were, both to the human condition and the formal concerns of crafting images.

It’s easy to spot artists who merely executed religious images from those, like Donatello, who lived and made images from life. His Magdalene isn’t the product of religiosity; it’s the product of humanity. The works I’m describing are not about converting people, but showing the witness of transformation that’s already in our world.

That’s what I want to do. If that’s religious, so be it, but I don’t see it as such. There isn’t a circumscribed area of “religious” and other areas that aren’t for me. All of life is sacred and enchanted for me. Everything is subjective and contingent.

All of the above determines the weights that I feel:

1) The weight of how objects resonate with our experience.
a. Meaning comes to inhabit objects through our use and experience of them over time. Because of this they become important and worth contemplating in artworks.
2) The weight of how the body resonates with our experience.
a. The inherent value and wonder of our embodiment is key to our experience of reality, key to our understanding of aesthetics and formal concerns, and key to our notions of meaning.
3) The weight of form as image.
a. Form as image is really just constructive visual logic in the context of compositional visual dynamics, formal relationships, and chromatic environments. It is a key to how we understand reality.
4) The weight of the difference between poetic (intersubjective, evocative) understanding and rational (empirical, “objective”) understanding.
a. The perennial dualities that seem to divide our experience of the world are heavy; each side tries to be definitive, but neither can exist without the other:
i. Faith / Logic
ii. Belief / Reason
iii. Intuition / Analysis
iv. Metaphysical / Physical
v. Supernatural / Natural
vi. Mystical / Rational
b. The rational / technical is more specific, directed, and closed. It lends itself to illustration and argument.
c. The emotional / allegorical is specific, directed, and transitional, which is why it can bridge the gap between illustration, iconography, and poetic images.
d. The poetic / archetypal is more general and open, trying to evoke a kind of multifaceted approach to meaning and understanding.
5) Weight of the differences between illustrative, iconographic, and poetic images.
a. Illustration: a directed one-to-one relationship between the picture and meaning.
b. Iconography: a more resonant and generalized one-to-one relationship between picture and meaning.
c. Poetic: an open and relational evocation of meaning via the picture.

But how does all of that play out in specific images? What it means is that I try to create images that work like relational conduits (something that simulates relationship, contemplation, and generosity of spirit). I want viewers to experience an invitation to contemplate their experiences in a dynamic, evocative way. This means that I can’t close down the read too much. It means that I can’t have too much of an agenda, though all of my history and influences and forebears (like you) are going to be shining through and inflecting what I do. It means that I have to try to maintain an open voice while advocating for the things I believe and am motivated by. I may fail at this from time to time, because I am so interested in the tension between illustrative, iconographic, and poetic images. I want to try to push illustration out of telling and facts and into evocative contemplation. It’s a hard task.

Most of the time illustration merely tells, merely declares something known. But good artworks remind us of something just beyond the edge of our knowing. They evoke a sense of what we intuitively feel about life: that there is something inherently meaningful and worthy about who we are and what we are doing, contemplating, living with, and aiming toward. Our dignity and the wonder of our consciousness can’t be reduced to certainty and facts; we know that we’re more than the sum of our parts. We know that what we are can’t be reduced down to the chemistry of our brains. We sense that we are more indefinable than definable.

The distinction between telling/declaring and evoking/reminding is very important to me. Telling and declaring only work in the context of certain kinds of truth. However, as Lucian Freud said, “There is a distinction between fact and truth. Truth has an element of revelation about it. If something is true, it does more than strike one as merely being so.” Truth does more than strike one as merely being true. Truth is more than the transmission of facts. It lifts you and causes you to resonate with awareness of your own contingency and limitation, your own beingness and consciousness. That’s why religious works meant to convey religious dogma are boring to me: they’re not true enough, not about life enough.

That’s why the Pontormo and Donatello I mentioned above work so well; they connect with life in a way that rings true. That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what the weight on my shoulders is. What burdens are you carrying?

Top: Matthew Ballou, Condition, multiple layer monotype in oil on paper, 2005