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A Landscape for Enlightenment: The Work of Adam Ball

By Beth Druce


Adam Ball spent most of winter 2008 on hands and knees producing a series of paper cut-outs for a collaboration with the fashion designer L’Wren Scott. The eight pieces, amassing 7ft x 44ft when laid edge to edge, were cut entirely by hand on the floor of his studio. The finished white on white cut paper, so intricate one critic assumed the use of a laser, belied the skill and the craftsmanship involved.

‘They’re a technical nightmare. As soon as you start one it’s just a matter of time before you damage it in some way. Thirty seconds of a sweaty palm alters the paper – when they’re hung and they are lit any little discrepancy in texture or tone will show up.  You can get 90% of the way through and then make a mistake and you have no choice but to start again’.

The period marked a change in medium for the artist, known for enchanted depictions of natural spaces, offset by vibrant, transcendental colour. Eight months on, in his studio in north London I find Ball back on the brushes, the strain on his body having taken its toll. Has it put him off doing anymore? ‘No – but I think you shouldn’t do too many of anything, because you get bored – you’ve got to keep creatively inspired in different areas, so it’s good to do some, and then not touch them for a while.’

And yet barely ten minutes passes before Ball produces a soft roll of dark felt and lays it out on a table in front of us. A knife and a cutting mat and he is away, experimenting with this new variation on the paper cut-outs. However the structure of the felt will not stand up to incision, and whilst the artist’s small and precise cutting techniques, when executed on paper reveal a sharp, intricate relief, this is a fuzzy haze of over-stretched fibres that pill like new carpet. It takes two days research and development before Ball manages to source a viscose felt that is better behaved and will not pill.

Negotiation of these moot points, for Ball, is not humdrum. It is intrinsic to his success. ‘Art school can’t teach you how to make art when you are in a studio on your own. When you have tutors and people to answer questions – it’s so different from when you are on your own, and every single decision has the potential to make you or break you’.

Thus far, Ball’s decisions have made him. They enabled him to recognize at an early age that art was what he excelled at. To complete a year’s foundation at Byam Shaw followed by a Fine Arts degree at the University of Newcastle. To create an installation piece entitled Boogie Woogie 2000, that, inspired by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, featured painted hazelnuts dancing to Jazz music, and went on to win a prize at the ICA Becks Futures, for Film and Video. To make a life-size painting of a tree, 32ft high by 22ft wide, that was hung in Golden Square in Soho. To hold his first solo show in the US at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, which caught the attention of the Goss Michael Foundation and resulted in a subsequent show at their gallery in Dallas. Ball, alongside Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, now number a succinct group of Young British Artists whose works embody the Foundation.

So if he is kept out of the studio for two days to source a different composition of fabric, that may or may not exist, for a piece that may or may not work, it’s just another day in the office. For it is Ball’s knack for making the right decision, at the right time, whether about a piece of felt, or indeed, a two year life-size public project, that has secured his career thus far.

Ball’s first solo show was held in London, in 2005. Entitled All That Glitters, the 17 works in oil and acrylic on canvas showcased the artist’s aptitude for making the imperceptible, perceptible. Where an area of woodland distorted by sunlight might capture an experience, the artist’s use of light and colour reveals the nature of that experience. ‘For many, forests signify frightening or dangerous places. I find a great deal of peace – I never find any sort of sadness, melancholy’.

Whilst Ball says the structure and composition of his paintings are ‘routed in observation, a particular place and a particular time’, (the colour) comes from my head. I think that’s where I’m trying to create a sense of positive energy and that sense of magic. The fantasy, that other worldly realm, it’s meant to be a positive place’. It proves a powerful tool, in Five Gold Stars the warmth instilled in the colour sets the positive tone that Ball speaks of, the feeling that the forest is a happy and benign place to be.

Such a penchant for the positive epitomizes Ball. It’s an electric current constantly in motion, zapping the problems, transforming the negatives. On the challenging and ambitious nature of painting a life-size tree that was publicly hung in the centre of London he ‘loved the excitement and challenge of doing it, I wanted to judge the feedback, to see the feedback, to see what came of it’. If Ball has fear or doubt about his abilities, then he has the innate ability to re-direct that fear into something productive. He can look forward to criticism, in spite of what it might consist of, he can relish the excitement factor, rather than ruing over the risk. ‘I think I am quite a happy person. And I like to surround myself with positive things and positive energies, and I think that’s why, hopefully these paintings are inspiring’.

The ethereal, fairy-tale qualities of many of Ball’s paintings become tangible through the addition of appliquéd stars, glitter, and stenciling. In Hansel Found No Crumbs, the original text of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale was handwritten onto the blank canvas. ‘I painted over that, so there are very small parts of the painting when you can see the text, but mostly you can’t. The idea was to incorporate the text and some elements of this story into the painting’.

Working layer on layer, as Ball does, the artistic process is subtly detectable to the viewer ‘like a trail of bread crumbs’ he explains. It’s pertinent not just to the narrative of the fairytale, but to the artist’s use of paint and colour in general. ‘Because I don’t apply paint opaquely, each layer is affected by the one underneath, so the colour evolves. I try to create a delicate surface so that you can see the history of the surface as well as the colour that has gone before it. I don’t know how the colour is going to end up. It’s a journey and it’s not necessarily conscious’.

It is Ball’s love for and engagement with colour, its power and its meaning, that is central to so much of his work. ‘I’m not trying to make the colour emulate something, I really have no interest in anything formal, and by that I mean whether something is cold or far away, I’m not trying to emulate the temperature or time of day, none of those things interest me. I want the colour just to be of it’s own’.

In This is Killing Me (2005), a William Morris wallpaper design is cut into black paper. In his research for the project Ball unearthed a rumour. The original design had been commissioned by a wealthy family and hung in their home. Members of the household fell ill one by one, the wallpaper had became damp and consequently emitted poisonous fumes. It’s alleged that in order to achieve the desired shade of green, Morris had added arsenic into the mix.

‘This Is Killing Me’ is a witty reference, but also a poignant reminder of the physical toll the piece took on the artist. Working at such close quarters, staring at minute areas for extended periods of time, would all but drive you crazy. But also, one senses, the idea that an artist might go to great, even dangerous lengths, in order to achieve the ‘perfect’ shade, is not far fetched. Especially not for Ball, for whom colour profits so much, in its own right. There’s semblance in the sentiment of the work (art, colour, history,) and Ball is masterful in his management of it: a slow, transcending ripple though time.

‘This Is Killing Me’ formed part of Dirty Pattern, Ball’s first solo show in the US, at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York. George Michael and Kenny Goss attended; Ball’s work became part of their multi-million dollar collection of British Art and Graffiti Love, a show at their gallery in Dallas, followed soon after.

Ball continues to be as meticulous in his professional dealings as he is with his paint brushes. His collaboration with L’Wren Scott in 2008 took careful consideration. Flick through any fashion publication and you’ll find an infinite number of creative ‘collaborations’, and yet it was not something that Ball was keen to rush into for the sake of it: ‘The process of collaborating induces very different conditions, that result in work I wouldn’t have created otherwise. But I think you’ve got to find your own voice first, which is why I didn’t do any collaborations any earlier’.

It is no surprise the two had a rapport – in an often fickle fashion industry, Scott is reassuringly consistent. Despite having only half a dozen seasons under her belt (a relative few, in fashion terms), she is noted for accomplished collections. Cathy Horyn, Suzy Menkes, doyens of the fashion press, not to mention Anna Wintour, attend her shows not for glitz and glamour but because she is sure to deliver something of value. ‘Bois de Boulogne’ (named after a park on the west side of Paris) was a collection rich with woody and autumnal anecdotal features and earthy hues. It’s not difficult to appreciate the correlation; Ball’s white cut-outs provided the proverbial landscape against which each of Scott’s models posed.

In the time that has passed since the collaboration, Ball has moved into a new space, physically, as well as creatively. A new studio has ample room to hang even the largest of his canvases, and he’s bouncing around it with a buoyancy that was bereft when he was knee high in paper cuttings this time last year.

His current works, inspired by a cemetery not far from his studio are quintessential Ball, but unlike the fairy tales and more sanguine memories that permeate earlier pieces, these works have a hedonistic feel to them.  Luminous green stars light up tombstones, decorating the landscape in a wash of consciousness. There’s also a small reference to the late Michael Jackson who passed away whilst Ball was working on the painting.

Whilst the colour is bolder (the word that comes to mind is ‘turbocharged’) and the imagery more graphic, it is not gauche. Instead the shift is energetic; a soft but clear nod towards an otherworldly presence. And if these sorts of messages are not new for Ball, then perhaps his articulation of them is more direct than he has allowed it to be in the past: ‘I think the risk you take as an artist in making work that is spiritual or based on elements of a religion, is alienating your audience quite quickly.’

Ball ponders his point. He’s conscious to give of himself honestly, to stay true to who he is, as much as to you. ‘It’s not just about my spiritual view, it’s for the viewer’s personal interpretation. The one thing I hope which is evident is that they are life enhancing, uplifting paintings, and that what they are dealing with comes across in a way that is exciting, and conveys an energizing dynamic’.

Graveyards, tombstones, the recently departed – and yet for all the mortal imagery, these are not paintings about death. Paradoxically, the driving force is life, and it’s this energy that Ball so proficiently infuses into the subject of his works that stirs the soul.

And the reference to Michael Jackson – in which world does that belong? ‘The thing about that is that I like the idea of a positive accident. So that if things come along, they can find there way into your work though they may not have been in the original plan. It could be a happy accident with colour, or it could be something more physical than that, as this was. But the fact that he passed away while I was making this painting seemed to me something that I shouldn’t ignore, that I should be open to’.

There is something incongruent about, with this talk of ‘accidents’. For all his professional success, there have been very few faux pas; Adam Ball is a man who leaves very little to chance. And yet it’s precisely those ‘happy accidents’, or rather his openness to new information, that explain the dynamic at the crux of his work: Art that embodies our world, yet is not defined by it. I imagine it is this which will carry him forward.

Beth Druce, June 2009.