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Essay: Adam Ball – The Further Uses of Enchantment

by Adrian Dannatt


But yes, that magic still works. The fundamental magic of painting, to create a different place, a new realm for imagination to roam, to cut open a rectangular space in the wall of everyday reality through which one is allowed to see something never seen before, something entirely new, all that transformative energy is still available. The work of Adam Ball is a bravura demonstration of just what such energies, such spells, are able to invoke. Ball thus puts a direct hex on us by his canvases. By the alchemy of their encrusted, opulent, glitteringly, thickly rich surfaces, he pulls us into an alternative existence utterly of his own imagining. This magic is apparently crafted from the simplest ingredients; oil paint, canvas, beads, materials available to anyone, but it is, of course, the juggling Ball does with them that maintains this suspension of belief.

Like all serious art, Ball’s paintings are, to a degree, about art itself, paintings about the process of painting. They are their own essay and argument about the sustained potential of such image making, encoded in the very canvas. The immediate visual gratification granted by Ball’s paintings, and their concurrent ability to conjure mood, atmosphere, mystery, is one level, the most apparent, at which they operate. But also, each painting is an infinitely carefully and rigorously planned exercise in form and technique, a physical problem worked out before and for our eyes, a technical challenge solved.

Ball wishes to slow and steady our gaze, to lure us into the appropriate concentration on each work, so it may “give back” all of its own making. And this is achieved not just by the initial sensual pleasure of the work, but by the layers of application, the palimpsest of painterly decision built into each surface. The very beading, pearls and words, fragments of text, a dense impasto of buried texture and narrative resonance, hold, and hypnotize our eyes.

As with any young artist today, Ball is acutely aware of all the myriad possible forms and formats of image making. After all, as a student he won the ICA Beck’s Futures award for short film, an animation based around Mondrian, and later rightly won much acclaim for a vast, life-size painting of a tree, installed to trompe l’oeil effect in a square in central London. Thus, from the audio-visual tricks of video to the deceptive stage-effects of an urban installation, from small to outsize, from the extremely physical to the intangible flux of the digital, Ball has strong practical knowledge of “image” making. Hence one may be sure that when he makes decisions, choices in his work, from format and size to material and subject matter, they are absolutely just.

The realm Ball has reclaimed with his current suite of paintings is that of the magical forests and floating palaces of fairy tale, a place of overt delectation and lush romanticism. But, within this return to a pre-lapsarian, mythic Eden, there is also always the hidden, lurking threat of danger, of capture and loss. This is the domain best described by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in his seminal 1976 book ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ with its subtitle ‘The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.’ Bettelheim not only makes clear the classic Freudian structure that underlies so many of these tales, he also posits their telling and re-telling as a fruitful means of redemption from the central fears of childhood. Hence the fairy tales can embody all the doubts and dreads of the child, whilst through each narrative suggest liberation from them. The enchantment that often takes place within these fairy tales, deep in a wood indeed, is also the enchantment that captures the listening child. Likewise, the enchantment being enacted within Ball’s paintings is also the enchantment of their own surfaces, their presence, which holds the viewer.
Thus, in this double-helix hex, a spell portrayed acts as a real spell upon us.

Ball is also re-telling the actual act of painting, taking on its long history, just as any parent who recounts a fairy story brings the whole lengthy tradition of such narratives with them, up-dating and continuing this legacy. As Bettelheim writes on the origins of art ” the rare, the costly, and the beautiful were inextricably combined with the religious, the magical, and the supernatural… both a great work of art and a priceless object, because of the gold and jewels worked into it.”

Despite the delicious lightness of Ball’s imagery, there cannot but be a darker and more sinister potential subtext to this world. An artist with the name “Adam” who pictures trees as innocent as those of the Garden of Eden, is bound to be equally aware of the dangers of the fruit of knowledge, the Fall that always accompanies the act of creation. However much of a cliche it may be, the artist is certainly close to God in their power to create new worlds and thus Adam Ball acts out his own Genesis myth, bringing into being his domain, whilst at the same time providing serpent and apple. If for the last fifty years within the art world the “Forbidden Fruit” has been that of figurative painting, Ball has dared partake of the tree, eaten the fatal apple, and waits to see if expulsion from this painterly paradise will ensue. One might say that a true knowledge of art history, a knowing expertise with regards to forebears and colleagues, breeds an awareness, a self-conscious sensibility that may lead to the artist’s expulsion from innocent expression.
What is the deeper loss these paintings mourn? Perhaps the loss of painting.

However to view Ball in the context of such a history, that of the fairy tale as well as the visual arts, provides an unusual if not eccentric lineage, certainly one foreign to the standard ‘usual suspects’ of most art school graduates. For it is impossible not to enjoy Ball’s imagery without invoking some of the great early 20th century artists who forged their reputations with luxurious books recounting the darkest and most occult tales. These volumes were ostensibly published for children, as their fairy tales were also supposedly for children, but their lavish imagery and excessive production values ensured a very adult market of collectors and connoisseurs. These artists are far from fashionable and their names do not feature on the curriculum of any current art educational establishment, yet the sheer potency of their work has not dimmed over a century. Such artists might include everyone from Walter Crane and E.J. Detmold to Warwick Goble, Willy Pog├ány, William Timlin and, of course, Arthur Rackham. One might even make a link between Ball’s otherworldly fantasia and the dreamscapes of that American artist Maxfield Parrish. Like all these fore-mentioned practitioners, Ball combines a bold graphic line with mysterious, almost abstract atmospherics.

Yet there remains a major difference between Ball and these pre-war book artists, namely that they were all producing their work as illustrators and specifically for reproduction on the flat page, as one-dimensional surfaces. Their images were at their most effective when reproduced, whilst by contrast Ball’s images simply cannot be fully understood or appreciated in reproduction, not even as catalogue plates, however high their quality. This is because Ball is making paintings that never state precisely their intentions or their meaning and they rely upon their texture, their surface, and their three-dimensionality for so much of their visceral effect. One may not touch (well, perhaps one may after purchase and in the privacy of one’s own home) but the desire to touch, to actually feel the warp and weft of theses paintings is part of their physicality, their tactile immediacy.
Whilst being overtly painterly, Ball’s canvases also may suggest the grain of outsize woodcuts, perhaps on rare and handmade Japanese papers, the thick inks and bright contours of the prints of, say, Bernard Boutet de Montvel, a sort of ‘Belle Epoque’ graphisme translated to contemporary dimensions.

Of course the forest is not only reserved for fairy tales, but also plays a central part throughout world mythology. Whether in Ovid’s version of the nymph Daphne being pursued by Apollo and then becoming a laurel tree as he touched her or in Bellini’s vision of the assassination of Saint Peter Martyr, murdered in the woods in 1252, these bosky groves always contain as much fright as delight. Means and methods of depicting forests can also be traced through the history of art with as much precision as the invention of perspective; from the richly detailed composition of Roelandt Savery’s ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ through to 17th century specialist painters of trees and branches, such as Jan Hackaert. Indeed, Ball’s aesthetics might call to mind everything from Corot’s panels of “Evening” and “Night” from his 1858 series the “Four Times of Day,” right back to Claude’s 1664 “Landscape with Psyche Outside the Palace of Cupid” whose other title, “The Enchanted Castle,” directly suggests Ball’s own architectural fantasia.

But the invocation of such artistic ancestry cannot obscure the extremely contemporary concerns that underlie Ball’s oeuvre, issues of the photographic if not the filmic, the instantaneously reproducible and easily alterable compositions of our digital civilization. Far from offering a reactionary repudiation of this universal photographic and video graphic culture, Ball asks us instead to pay renewed attention to what can and cannot be achieved within those technical processes. And it is as a patient magician, shaman showman, that Ball helps us to question the limits of such mechanistic representation, leading us with stealth and seduction into that haunting netherworld, that ghost land of painting, which lies beyond the cold glaze of the screen.