Barry X Ball
13 May 2007 / 01 Feb 2007

Barry X Ball

Barry X Ball makes stone portraits that push the physical and conceptual boundaries of sculpture. Using semi-precious materials such as lapis lazuli, Belgian Black marble, and Iranian onyx, Ball’s portrait heads of friends, artists, and prominent art world figures are unlike anything we have seen in recent decades. Consider his portrait of painter Jon Kessler. Using black and white, diagonally-striped ‘Fantastico’ Italian marble, Ball renders Kessler’s irregular visage – characterized by a droopy left eye, a bulbous nose, and a pair of uneven floppy ears – with an overlay of Victorian-style brocade pattern and minute bands of radial fluting. In Ball’s seemingly magical hands, stone loses its stoniness: it appears to shrink, stretch, and sag, looking and behaving more like human skin. Kessler’s portrait reflects Ball’s love of illusionism and theatricality; even though the head is firmly affixed atop a steel shaft, it feels as though it may slip off its support.

Ball’s portraits are marked by a kind of hyper-compressed energy and visceral intensity that sends your mind reeling. Your thoughts vacillate between the likeness of the sitter, the aesthetic qualities of the stone, and the odd contortions of the form — even though you are completely baffled about how these objects came into existence. Ball’s carving process is incredibly complex, and it melds ancient and 21st-century technology to extraordinary effect. He begins by making a plaster life cast of his sitter. Working from the initial mold, Ball makes a plaster positive, which he sculpts by hand in order to create an accurate portrait of the sitter. Next, he digitizes the portrait using a three-dimensional digital laser scanner, creating a virtual model which allows him to stretch or shrink the head and add decorative overlays to it. After the modeling is complete, Ball sends the computer file into a computer-numerically-controlled milling machine that does the initial stone shaping. He uses a variety of progressively finer bits to mill the stone. Once the sculpture emerges from the CNC machine, Ball returns the object to his studio for months of hand-carving and polishing. Just prior to completion, he masks, sandblasts, and oil-impregnates the stone. The average production time for one portrait is approximately 2-3 years.

Ball’s intricate and highly deliberate process involves pairing different exotic stones with individual sitters. In his portrait of Milanese art historian and critic Laura Mattioli Rossi, Ball uses rare Belgian Black marble to great effect: the gleaming, hand-polished open eye of the alluring Mattioli is both captivating and unsettling. In some cases, such as the two “wounded” Lucas Michael portraits carved in Mexican onyx, Ball allows colorful inclusions in the stone to become physical attributes of the sitter.

Although many of Ball’s heads are disturbing in their distortions, their surface ornamentation, use of precious materials, and the enigmatic, visceral effects that they generate speak to a myriad of artistic influences. Egyptian death masks, Roman Republican portraiture, 12th century West African heads, and the Japanese art of tattooing, are among the many references that Ball collapses into his portraits that in effect blur the boundaries between past and present, and conflate the sculptural mark made by both hand and machine.

Accompanying the stone portraits in this exhibition are two additional sculptures made by Ball through similar means that are based upon ancient Chinese Scholars’ Rocks. Over the centuries, these rocks, prized for their deformities and irregularities, have been meticulously copied and sold as “originals.” In Ball’s equally “deformed” versions, he addresses the notion of connoisseurship, and the cultural and monetary values that we assign to notions of artifice and authenticity.

Barry X Ball Installation 2007