Barry X Ball and the art of im­prove­ment.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By An­gela Hes­son

“Art is hu­mans do­ing their best.” So de­clares Barry X Ball, seated at his com­puter for our Skype in­ter­view, his shelves neatly stacked with papers, a se­ries of print­outs re­sem­bling cra­nial cross-sec­tions pinned to the wall be­hind him. Ball has re­cently re­turned from Madrid, Spain where he has been fi­nal­is­ing work on his largest piece to date, Per­fect Forms. This three-me­tre-tall strid­ing fig­ure, cast in brass and steel and coated in mir­ror-pol­ished 24 karat gold, is a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Um­berto Boc­cioni’s iconic fu­tur­ist sculp­ture, Unique Forms of Con­ti­nu­ity in Space, first ex­hib­ited in 1913. In re­vis­it­ing and reti­tling the work, Ball pro­vides an ef­fec­tive en­cap­su­la­tion of his cre­ative phi­los­o­phy: the no­tion of art as some­thing - any­thing - that peo­ple do “at the high­est level”. Within this ap­peal­ingly open-ended def­i­ni­tion, cre­ativ­ity is framed as a process of im­prove­ment, as a con­tin­u­ous and of­ten col­lab­o­ra­tive striv­ing to­ward per­fec­tion.

From his early ca­reer as a con­cep­tual artist work­ing across nu­mer­ous me­dia, Ball’s prac­tice has, over the past decade, evolved into some­thing more spe­cialised, iden­ti­fi­able by its fetishis­tic at­ten­tion to crafts­man­ship and to de­tail. Em­ploy­ing a va­ri­ety of rare and ex­per­i­men­tal ma­te­ri­als, in com­bi­na­tion with emerg­ing dig­i­tal and in­dus­trial tech­nolo­gies, Ball rein­ter­prets tra­di­tional fig­u­ra­tive sculp­ture to pro­duce works that are at once his­tori­cized and un­mis­tak­ably of their pe­riod. His meth­ods range from time-hon­oured tech­niques of hand carv­ing and pol­ish­ing, to 3D scan­ning, vir­tual mod­el­ling, and com­puter-con­trolled cut­ting and milling. The ideal of per­fec­tion - of the best ma­te­ri­als, the best tech­niques, the best mak­ers, the best and most re­fined forms - un­der­pins every as­pect of Ball’s prac­tice, from his rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of clas­si­cal, baroque and fu­tur­ist sculp­ture to his ex­tra­or­di­nary, ma­nip­u­lated por­trait busts of con­tem­po­rary artists.

In the case of Per­fect Forms, the orig­i­nal sur­face of Boc­cioni’s work has been smoothed, its an­gles sharp­ened, nicks and scratches have been re­paired and the mir­rored fin­ish has been added so that the work, quite lit­er­ally, re­flects the world around it. The aero­dy­namic, fluid form of the orig­i­nal sculp­ture was in­tended to con­vey the speed and dy­namism of the emer­gent ma­chine age, and this spec­tre of moder­nity is thus per­haps uniquely suited to re-in­ter­pre­ta­tion within the con­text of 21st cen­tury tech­nolo­gies.

The no­tion of re­vis­it­ing an his­tor­i­cal work for a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence is of course not a re­cent one. There ex­ist count­less later ver­sions of clas­si­cal, re­nais­sance and baroque works, whose al­ter­ations and adap­ta­tions over the cen­turies might pro­vide a pro­to­type here. Ball’s on­go­ing Mas­ter­pieces se­ries, be­gun in 2008, of which Per­fect Forms is a part, takes as its uni­fy­ing theme the dif­fi­cult task of mak­ing new sculp­tures that are ‘more per­fect’ than their pur­port­edly ‘per­fect’ his­tor­i­cal pro­to­types. These pro­duc­tions are thus at once skep­ti­cal and op­ti­mistic, chal­leng­ing the sacro­sanct na­ture of their his­toric for­bears, and si­mul­ta­ne­ously lay­ing a clear path for con­tem­po­rary and fu­ture artists: within this con­text, new works based upon older ones are not so much copies as up­grades.

Pu­rity (2008-2011) was in­spired by An­to­nio Cor­ra­dini’s 18th cen­tury bust of the same name, pop­u­larly known as the Veiled Woman. This sculp­ture has, since its cre­ation, been sub­ject to count­less re-imag­in­ings, and Ball’s work thus forms the cur­rent te­los in the work’s long his­tory of rein­ven­tion. In the 19th cen­tury, the sculp­tor Raf­faele Monti pro­duced a highly suc­cess­ful, if rather less mys­ti­cal vari­a­tion on the work, adding a wreath of flow­ers around the head and sub­tly al­ter­ing and soft­en­ing the fa­cial fea­tures in ac­cor­dance with a mid-19th cen­tury taste for pret­ti­ness. Shortly there­after, the Copeland pot­tery mass-pro­duced a Par­ian copy of Monti’s sculp­ture, (now ti­tled The Bride, in keep­ing with Vic­to­rian sen­ti­ment), which soon came to adorn count­less mid­dle-class man­tel­pieces.

Ball ex­hibits a very dif­fer­ent set of mo­ti­va­tions in his al­ter­ations to Cor­ra­dini’s orig­i­nal form 150 years later. In his mul­ti­ple ver­sions of Pu­rity, the most im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent shift is in the ma­te­rial it­self, where tra­di­tional white Car­rara mar­ble has been re­placed by a va­ri­ety of coloured stones, each with a dif­fer­ing level of opac­ity. These range from a del­i­cate rose-tinted Ira­nian onyx, with all the lu­mi­nous fragility of a sea-shell, to a rich and oily Bel­gian black mar­ble. Each sculp­ture is cre­ated in-the-round, with even its un­der­side metic­u­lously pol­ished, thereby elim­i­nat­ing the un­fin­ished sec­tions com­mon to Cor­ra­dini’s orig­i­nal and the afore­men­tioned later copies, and mak­ing pos­si­ble new modes of dis­play. In his de­scrip­tion of the work, Ball refers to “cor­rect­ing” the dam­ages that have oc­curred over time - fill­ing in chips, scratches and scuffs. The veil has been ex­tended and its lace border re­moved to en­hance the liq­uid­ity of the form, and in an­other par­tic­u­larly sen­su­ous de­tail, Ball has pol­ished the small sec­tion of ex­posed skin to con­trast with the matte sur­face of the veil.

One might ques­tion whether Ball’s al­ter­ations hold par­tic­u­lar cul­tural or po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance for his own pe­riod, or whether the over­ar­ch­ing ideal of aes­thetic per­fec­tion tran­scends no­tions of his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity. Ball has spo­ken about his elim­i­na­tion of re­li­gious im­agery from Pu­rity - as such the sculp­ture is both sec­u­larised and made uni­ver­sal, bet­ter avail­able for sub­jec­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion. More play­fully, he also points out that he has sub­tly en­larged the fig­ure’s breasts, am­pli­fy­ing what he de­scribes as the “veiled yet overt sen­su­al­ity” al­ready present in Cor­ra­dini’s work. Com­mon to all of Ball’s al­ter­ations is an aura of sen­si­tiv­ity to the ap­par­ent in­ten­tions of the pro­to­type’s creator. Ball ex­plains that in the case of an­other work from this se­ries, The Sleep­ing Hermaphrodite, the en­tire lower por­tion of the face in the clas­si­cal sculp­ture is un­fin­ished, and he has thus stepped in where the orig­i­nal sculp­tor (per­haps for lack of time or funds) was un­able to per­fect his own project.

There is un­doubt­edly a de­par­ture from tra­di­tion in­her­ent in these kinds of al­ter­ations; in the case of the ma­jor­ity of his­tor­i­cal ver­sions or copies, the qual­ity di­min­ishes with each suc­ces­sive work. Broadly speak­ing, the process of democrati­sa­tion - of mak­ing works more avail­able and more ac­ces­si­ble - ef­fec­tively com­pro­mises work­man­ship, em­ploy­ing cheaper ma­te­ri­als, less spe­cialised tech­niques and less skilled mak­ers. What Ball en­deav­ours to pro­vide is, in ef­fect, the in­verse of this es­tab­lished par­a­digm, a de­lib­er­ate and dis­ci­plined process of evo­lu­tion rather than di­min­ish­ment or sim­pli­fi­ca­tion.

To achieve these re­sults, Ball re­lies upon an ex­ten­sive sup­port sys­tem.

In­te­gral to this is his re­vival of the studio model, whereby much of the work is car­ried out by metic­u­lously trained as­sis­tants, spe­cial­is­ing in dif­fer­ent as­pects of the process, from 3D scan­ning and print­ing to hand carv­ing and sand­ing. The 5000 hours of hu­man labour it took to pro­duce and re­fine The Sleep­ing Hermaphrodite would sim­ply not have been achiev­able by an artist work­ing alone. Prior to the mid-19th cen­tury, the tra­di­tion of the artist’s studio, (within which ar­ti­sans were em­ployed un­der the in­struc­tion of a mas­ter) was re­spon­si­ble for the cre­ation of the ma­jor­ity of the world’s most cel­e­brated art­works, and it seems fit­ting that Ball’s prac­tice, with its em­pha­sis upon re­fine­ment and fault­less ex­e­cu­tion, should re­in­state ar­ti­sanal modes of pro­duc­tion. Many of Ball’s as­sis­tants are prac­tic­ing artists in their own right, and he speaks at length about the im­por­tance of in­spir­ing them to pro­duce the finest qual­ity work, in­side his studio and out of it. Old-fash­ioned pa­tron­age has also played a sig­nif­i­cant role in the de­vel­op­ment of Ball’s sculp­ture. Ma­jor pa­trons, in­clud­ing famed art col­lec­tor Giuseppe Panza, have en­abled Ball’s em­ploy­ment of as­sis­tants, his in­vest­ment in new tech­nolo­gies, and the travel nec­es­sary not only to ex­plore artis­tic pro­to­types, but to source the finest raw ma­te­ri­als in which to rein­ter­pret these.

Much of the im­pact of Ball’s sculp­ture re­sides in the qual­ity of his ma­te­ri­als, and his un­con­ven­tional choice of stones is among the most in­no­va­tive as­pects of his prac­tice. These are sourced from quar­ries around the world, and Ball - who is metic­u­lous about in­di­vid­u­ally se­lect­ing his stones and be­ing present when they are first cut - de­scribes the process as one that fa­cil­i­tates “the best con­nec­tion to na­ture”. Many of these stones be­have in very dif­fer­ent ways from tra­di­tional white Ital­ian mar­ble, and there is con­se­quently an ex­cit­ing el­e­ment of trial and er­ror in achiev­ing the fi­nal re­sult. In the case of Mex­i­can onyx, for ex­am­ple - one of Ball’s favoured ma­te­ri­als - the veins, seams and pits that run through the stone ma­te­ri­al­ize only as it is cut. Ball ex­plains this el­e­ment of serendip­ity as one of the more ex­cit­ing as­pects of his process, “I like the fact that there’s some­thing out of con­trol - it adds a kind of wildcard con­tent to it”.

This ef­fect is em­ployed to par­tic­u­larly dra­matic, sym­bolic ef­fect in Envy (2008-2011), based upon Giusto Le Court’s Baroque mas­ter­piece, La In­vidia. Here, the cratered, dis­eased ap­pear­ance of the stone mir­rors the cor­rup­tion of the sub­ject. The geode craters re­sem­ble the stretched, dis­torted ori­fices of the face it­self, their crys­tal­ized in­te­ri­ors si­mul­ta­ne­ously evok­ing dec­o­ra­tion and de­cay. Crim­son veins in the stone sug­gest an ap­pro­pri­ately un­bal­anced cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem for the mon­strous fig­ure.

Per­haps the most aes­thet­i­cally rad­i­cal of Ball’s stone carv­ings fea­ture the vis­ages of fel­low con­tem­po­rary artists, ma­nip­u­lated and dis­torted and ren­dered in se­duc­tively tac­tile ma­te­ri­als. These works, the ma­jor­ity of which are ac­com­pa­nied by ex­ten­sive, po­etic, play­ful and of­ten in­del­i­cate ti­tles, are seem­ingly Ball’s most ex­per­i­men­tal and in many cases his most vis­ually un­set­tling. Em­ploy­ing so­phis­ti­cated dig­i­tal imag­ing soft­ware to ma­nip­u­late the cast and scanned heads, he im­pales, stretches, pierces and flays his sub­jects. The artist also makes mir­ror­ing a fea­ture of many of these por­traits, lend­ing a sub­tle el­e­ment of strange­ness to oth­er­wise fa­mil­iar faces.

Ball’s por­trait bust of artist Matthew Mc­caslin (in­for­mally re­ferred to as Ho­muncu­lus 2000-2004) takes the form of an amoeba-like crea­ture, ren­dered in a seem­ingly gelati­nous translu­cent Mex­i­can onyx, with tiny arms out­stretched, Christ-like, be­neath a bulging cra­nium. In an in­con­gru­ously en­dear­ing de­tail, the arms were cast from Ball’s own in­fant daugh­ter. The strange, meta­mor­phic form is evoca­tive of fin de siè­cle sym­bol­ist works such as Au­drey Beard­s­ley or Ed­vard Munch’s feo­tuses in jars and Odilon Re­don’s se­ries of char­coal noirs in all of their dark, de­gen­er­ate glory. In a 2007 lecture ad­dress­ing his por­trai­ture, Ball dis­cussed the tech­ni­cal as­pects of his of­ten vi­o­lent al­ter­ations to the vis­ages of artist friends, con­clud­ing with the sug­ges­tive dec­la­ra­tion “and then there is the ques­tion of in­tent”. It is a ques­tion which Ball, teas­ingly, leaves unan­swered.

In Ball’s self-por­trait with Matthew Bar­ney (2000-2007), the two artists have been bru­tally mar­tyred and fused at the scalp, pre­sented as sev­ered, im­paled dou­ble-heads, one face scream­ing the other pen­sive, flayed skin trail­ing down the steel spikes that sup­port/pierce them. The el­e­ment of grotesque is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the use of sur­face dec­o­ra­tion which, Ball ex­plains “is in­tended to evoke tat­toos, tribal scar­i­fi­ca­tion, pat­terned ar­mour…” Yet there is also, in the richly pat­terned sur­face, the sug­ges­tion of a kind of bour­geois do­mes­tic­ity. Ball de­scribes his pref­er­ence for Vic­to­rian pat­terns, no­table, he ex­plains for their “a-his­tor­i­cal, multi-era, multi-style, ‘proto Post­mod­ern’ den­sity”. And while there is man­i­festly a sym­bolic, self-ref­er­en­tial el­e­ment in this visual al­lu­sion to the Vic­to­rian mag­pie-like en­thu­si­asm for his­tor­i­cal bor­row­ing, it is hard not to be dis­tracted by the pret­ti­ness of the ef­fect.

These pat­terns ac­quired new res­o­nance dur­ing the 2011 Venice Bi­en­nale, where Ball in­stalled a se­ries of sculp­tures at the Ca’ Rez­zon­ico palazzo on the Grand Canal. The palazzo’s Ro­coco in­te­ri­ors in­clude beau­ti­fully-pre­served fres­coes and three-di­men­sional wall dec­o­ra­tion, and into the lilac-toned Stucco Room, Ball in­tro­duced the Stretched Por­trait of Jon Kessler with Baroque Re­lief in Ital­ian Fan­tas­tico Mar­ble, the elab­o­rate three-di­men­sional sur­face-pat­tern of the sculp­ture mir­ror­ing the lux­u­ri­ous or­na­ment of the in­te­rior. Here, the lav­ish­ness of the his­toric en­vi­ron­ment seems lit­er­ally to be rub­bing off on the con­tem­po­rary artist.

Ball’s prac­tice has some­thing of the cu­ri­ous about it, poised in­trigu­ingly be­tween ar­chaism and progress, be­tween cen­turies-old wis­dom and pi­o­neer­ing ex­per­i­ment. As such, Ball is both in­her­i­tor and in­no­va­tor, main­tain­ing a sym­pa­thetic, even sym­bi­otic, re­la­tion­ship with his artis­tic for­bears. His works are in­ter­pretable in the con­text of con­tin­u­ing or com­plet­ing an open-ended project. As Ball points out, Boc­cioni died be­fore his fu­tur­ist mas­ter­work was ever ac­tu­ally cast in bronze. This Mod­ernist icon, one we as­so­ci­ate in­sep­a­ra­bly with a par­tic­u­lar mo­ment in time and a par­tic­u­lar artist, was never ac­tu­ally seen by its creator, hav­ing in­stead come into be­ing only as the re­sult of a kind of con­tin­u­ous, in­ter­gen­er­a­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion. Im­plicit in this re­al­iza­tion is the pos­si­bil­ity that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of artists will con­tinue this process, tak­ing Ball’s works as points of de­par­ture for their own vari­a­tions on a theme.

The no­tion of ‘do­ing one’s best’ is si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­fused with hu­mil­ity and grandeur - both play­fully unas­sum­ing and am­bi­tious to the point of unattain­abil­ity. Rem­i­nis­cent of the de­cep­tively en­cour­ag­ing rhetoric of the school­teacher, it of­fers no clear end-point, save that en­dur­ingly se­duc­tive, in­her­ently elu­sive ideal of per­fec­tion. It is an ideal that re­quires con­stant dis­ci­pline, reg­u­lar re-eval­u­a­tion and per­haps also, in spite of all of Ball’s post­mod­ern re­flex­ive­ness, the sup­pres­sion of cyn­i­cism. Art is hu­mans do­ing their best, and the best, per­haps, is yet to come.

Plate 01. Envy, 2008 - 2011.

Plate 06. Sleep­ing Hermaphrodite, 2008 - 2010.

Im­age Plates

Plate 01. Sculp­ture: Mex­i­can Onyx, stain­less steel, 22 x 17-1/4 x 9-1/2 inches; pedestal: Mace­do­nian Mar­ble, stain­less steel, wood, acrylic lac­quer, steel, ny­lon, plas­tic, 46 x 14 x 12 inches; sculp­ture-pedestal assem­bly: 68 x 17-1/4 x 12 inches. Af­ter Giusto Le Court (1627 - 1679) La In­vidia, circa 1670, Ca’ Rez­zon­ico, Venice. Pri­vate Col­lec­tion, Ger­many

Plate 02. Sculp­ture: mir­ror-pol­ished 24K gold on nickel on cop­per on SLA rapid pro­to­type model and solid brass with stain­less steel ar­ma­ture / fit­tings and resin fill­ing, 21 x 16.4 x 7 inches; ta­ble pedestal / vit­rine: wal­nut, Color­core, alu­minum, low-iron glass, 84 x 31.5 x 22 inches. Af­ter Um­berto Boc­cioni (1882 - 1916) Unique Forms of Con­ti­nu­ity in Space, 1913. Edi­tion of 7 + 2 Artist’s Proofs

Plate 03. Sculp­ture: translu­cent Mex­i­can (Pue­bla) onyx, stain­less steel fig­ure / shaft assem­bly: 74 x 11-1/4 x 8-15/16 inches (188 x 28.6 x 22.7 cm) fig­ure: 16-15/16 x 11-1/4 x 8 15/16 inches (43 x 28.6 x 22.7 cm). Pri­vate Col­lec­tion, Switzer­land

Plate 04. Sculp­ture: Bel­gian Black Mar­ble, stain­less steel; sculp­ture: 24 x 16-1/2 x 11-1/4 inches pedestal: Mace­do­nian Mar­ble, stain­less steel, wood, acrylic lac­quer, steel, ny­lon, plas­tic, 45 x 14 x 12 inches. Sfter An­to­nio Cor­ra­dini La Pu­rità, 1720 - 1725, Ca’ Rez­zon­ico, Venice. Pri­vate Col­lec­tion, Paris Plate 05. As­sis­tants at Work on Sleep­ing Hermaphrodite. Photo: Courtesy of Barry x Ball Plate 06. Sculp­ture: Bel­gian Black Mar­ble, 68-1/8 x 35-1/2 x 18-1/4 inches; base: Car­rara Mar­ble, stain­less steel, Del­rin, 68-1/2 x 35-13/16 x 13-3/8 inches; sculp­ture / base assem­bly: 68-1/2 x 35-13/16 x 31-5/8 inches. Af­ter the Hermaphrodite En­dormi (Er­mafrodito Borgh­ese), Musée du Lou­vre, Paris (ex Collezione Borgh­ese, Roma), dis­cov­ered near the Baths of Dio­cle­tian in 1608, fig­ure and drap­ery Ro­man Im­pe­rial Pe­riod (2nd cen­tury A.D.) af­ter a Greek orig­i­nal (2nd cen­tury B.C.), fig­ure restora­tions by David Larique (1619), bed ad­di­tion by Gian­lorenzo Bernini (1619). Pri­vate Col­lec­tion, New York

Plate 04. Pu­rity, 2008 - 2010.

Plate 05. Photo: Courtesy of Barry x Ball

Plate 03. Matthew Mc­caslin Ho­muncu­lus (ab­bre­vi­ated ti­tle) 2000-2004.

Plate 02. Per­fect Forms, 2010 - 2014.

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