Things I know about rocks

Things I Know About Rocks: Thoughts on Austin Ballard’s The Indivisibles at NAPOLEON

An Essay by Emily Davidson

Blackberry Jam on Camo, 22” x 66” x 20”, 2012

Blackberry Jam on Camo, 22” x 66” x 20”, 2012

Rocks are time, rocks are eternity. They are spirit and place. There’s the large stone rolled away to reveal an empty tomb. There’s Cary Grant clinging to the Mt. Rushmore precipice. A pebble makes a ripple; a tombstone gets defaced. There’s rock in the caverns and quarries mined for keepsake or public memorial. In the pumice stone or the countertop slate.  Rocks are metaphor in Paul Simon’s poem to loneliness and are metaphor in Bob Seger’s pledge to Chevy trucks. They appear figurative and abstract. Their formations defy gravity and fatally employ it.

One thousand years ago, during the Tang Dynasty, geological wonders known as Scholars’ Rocks became a source of fascination to Chinese intellectuals.  Collections were built around these found objects, valued for their thinness, openness, perforations, and wrinkling. These rocks have been described assubstitutes for the wonderful landscapes seen in dreams” (I. Wilson).  It’s believed that these mini-universes observed within Scholars’ Rocks provided a certain solace for first-millennia enthusiasts. Interestingly, the Chinese are the only people to have started their history without a discernible creation myth. The people just looked to the rocks. Mounting these natural forms on hand-carved wooden stands, they must have found consolation in such aesthetic harmony–a yin and yang achieved through the marriage of sculpted form and pure stone. With meticulous presentation, microcosmic imagery of mountains, valleys, and streams came alive from the varied and magical surfaces.

I don’t know if Austin Ballard collects rocks, but his studio practice is much indebted to the auratic qualities of them. Looking at his sculptures, it seems that he plays upon a rock’s narrative and cultural ubiquity, its gravity-defying asymmetry, its timelessness.  Like the relics assembled by the Chinese Scholars, his sculptures combine natural, formless material (ceramic) with modern, plinth-like form–steel, oak, or glass. However, while the Chinese valued natural form shaped by evolution and erosion, Ballard emphasizes a distinct labor and history in his sculptures.  Like a master stone carver, Ballard willfully strives to transform wet clay into believable–albeit bizarre–rock-like form.  Working large scale, he leaves evident finger prints throughout each sculpture, and creates bulbous forms full of folds and indentations. After firing, Ballard’s objects endure coats of garishly bright paint, which pool and puddle and accumulate over each irregular surface like moss collecting on a boulder. Then, using an angle grinder, Ballard cheats years of erosion with brute force.

This destruction removes most of the chroma on his clay objects, in a process faster and quicker than those millennia that built our celebrated natural wonders. As he defaces his own made objects, Ballard takes the gesture farther in collage–wielding an Exact-o knife on art historical images, to cut printed matter of Italian fresco into mini-stone clusters. There is something about the way he obliterates the text book image, and sands the ceramic surfaces to follow a logic of balance and gravity but are entirely in the end, a made construction.

Ballard cites natural wonders including the Scholars’ rock and the structure of a desert hoodoo,  as sources of visual interest, though he keeps the firsthand experience of these forms at a distance. The mythic, desert hoodoos–known as fairy chimneys–lie thousands of miles away from the white walls of his studio.  From an arid basin or badland, these tall spires of rock protrude and develop as a result of two weather processes continuously working together to erode into one rock formation. Such forces, wind and rain, can be likened to the physicality and precision applied to Ballard’s clay sculptures and collages.

For the Chinese Scholars, rocks could conjure the purest energy of heaven and earth coalesced. Ballard alludes to such pure energy tongue in cheek, titling each work as if writing a vegan brunch menu: Carolina Parakeet with Appletini over Fluorescent GreenRussets and Saffron Thread on Pine.  Blackberry Jam on Camo. Perhaps it is in the absence of astounding nature–the Scholars’ Rocks or the hoodoo–that compels Ballard to choose modernist, oak plinth and engineered paint hue as his stand-in for heaven. Here, Dwell Magazine becomes bible, Charles Eames his Lord and Saviour. If so, then we are promised Earthly possibility through Ballard’s utter irreverence: holding none of his sources or materials as sacred, each indivisible from the other. Ballard’s sculptures are like monuments built from a dream, where material alludes to an eternity, one interrupted with the urgency of a well-crafted rock thrown at your bedroom window.

 Carolina Parakeet with Appletini over Fluorescent Green, 46” x 82” x 24”, 2012

Carolina Parakeet with Appletini over Fluorescent Green, 46” x 82” x 24”, 2012

Author’s Note:

Emily Davidson is a Philadelphia-based artist working in painting and collage. She teaches in the Foundation department at Tyler School of Art, at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, and at the West Park Horticultural Center. She collaborates and co-edits the Nicola Midnight St. Claire, an online arts magazine. This fall, she will exhibit new works at Stockton College in Tomorrow is Never, curated by Jacob Feige.
Please visit for more information.

 Click Davidson_Ballard_July_2013 to download a .pdf version of this essay

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