July 2016: Kate Ball

In Blog, Photography, Reviews By by Ken Aschliman On August 10, 2016

Kate Ball, Installation view


In the exhibition Lawn Game, Kate Ball creates works that emerge from the setting of the middle American backyard, and are mired in a grotesque kitsch aesthetic. Her exhibition showcases bizarre collages and stop-motion videos that explore the relationship between humans and animals. Ball’s process begins with creating collagraph prints that involve gluing collage materials and found objects onto the printing plate. Next she cuts up her prints and combines them with other found objects in her mixed media pieces and stop-motion videos. The works are neither polished nor self-contained, rather Ball’s collages sprawl out freely on the walls and found sculptural elements adorn the  works. The stop motion videos echo with American folk tunes and intermittent grunts and shrieks. Ball’s crude style manifests itself in the quickly cut collage elements that are roughly glued, sewn, or tied to one another, culminating in creatures that are neither human nor animal. The disturbing world created in Lawn Game critiques the rocky relationship between human and animal cohabitors in the constructed habits of suburbia.


Ball pieces together her stop-motion videos, A Little Stroll and Lawn Game, in a rough style that brings to mind the way in which Victor Frankenstein vivified his monster. A Little Stroll must be glimpsed through a massive wooden bird box that protrudes from the gallery wall. The LED screen in an animal’s habitat is conflicting. However, the stop-motion video raises even further dissonance between the natural world and synthetic human sphere. A picturesque mountain backdrop, carpet with faux fur, and a soundtrack  of “Home on the Range” set the stage for the video. Strange fleshy figures that are roughly pieced and stitched together creep in and out of the frame. Between shots of the faux fur, the figures wink, laugh, grimace, and cry tears of sprinkles while slithering about like snakes on their unusually long necks. Between the intermittent appearance of the monster-like figures, animal crackers fight each other in a much more animalistic way than their candy coated appearance suggests. One overtakes the other, stringing jelly guts across the frame. Then the faux fur on the ground creeps out of the frame. The facial features of the figures change from frame to frame and to match their expressions, and none match the the angle of the face. Disconnect between the features and the figures is unnerving and makes their reactions seem disingenuous. Also, The manmade environment in A Little Stroll highlights the constructed relationship that we have with nature.


Kate Ball, still from Lawn Game


Lawn Game, which shares its name with the title of the exhibition, runs rampant with feverish internal conflict. The stop-motion video features a monstrous collage of a man who is mowing his lush manicured lawn, completely pantless with a laughably large penis swinging about freely. The character is a suburban status symbol with his manhood on full display. Pausing his lawn mowing to pick up a baseball bat, something completely unexpected happens, he gives birth to a deer. His initial horror at the unexpected and vulgar event soon turns to joy, he is the proud father of this creature. Then, he gives birth to another, and another, until the rate is out of control. Soon deer are all over his lawn mating, defecating, fighting, and tearing up his lawn. His love for his progeny is met with a psychotic break. How dare they destroy his gorgeous lawn. In a fit of rage he kills them all with a baseball bat. Realizing the gravity of his action, he faints, only to have more deer spawn from his mouth. The strange hallucination appears as a Freudian battle within the suburban male psyche. The video highlights the suburban man’s internal struggle between controlling and respecting nature as well as the base desire for dominance and control.


Kate Ball, Ingredients detail


The installation Ingredients strips down the exhibition to its base elements. The installation displays rows of itemized prints and found objects in plastic bags labeled with masking tape and Sharpie, to be used in Ball’s collage and stop-motion works. Each bag is nailed directly to the wall. Some of the bags are labeled “flesh,” “SUV’s,” “taxidermy heads,” and “cats,” though the contents are more or less true to their label. Others contain humorous and unusual combinations like “Naked Men & Home Appliances” and “Bats & the Queen.” The contents capture a slice of suburban life. Ball includes stereotypical objects, and also visceral, disgusting objects that polite culture tends to smooth over and ignore.


Deer Etchings series from left to right: Icon, Manicure, Exhibit, Whhhite, Bambi


Ball’s Deer Etchings series repeats the same etching of a deer that is stylistically like a saint’s icon. In each piece she uses various collage elements and sculptural treatments to alter the etching. Because of their frontal presentation and direct eye contact with the viewer, the deer take on a human quality and  showcase different personalities. In the first print, Icon, the deer is adorned with a golden background, scrupulous human eyes, and a rosary that is hung below the frame. Because the golden background and rosary depict the deer as if it were a saint, this piece symbolizes our relationship with nature as inherently spiritual and therapeutic. In Manicure this deer has rectangles of turf covering its eyes and a tangle of outdoor string lights hung below it. The string lights below the portrait easily draw comparison to Christian Boltanski’s photo installations, and the piece highlights our need to conquer nature and subject it to our rules of order. In the middle print, Exhibit, the deer is hung in a gold frame with glassy ceramic eyes, ivy and straw. The portrait champions a pastoral aesthetic, used to romanticize nature in myth, literature, and traditional art. In Whhhite the deer is adorned with a cut-outs of the Confederate flag, the lid of aPBR can, paper antlers, and steel truck nuts that dangle below. This piece pokes fun at the “country boy” subculture that is often stereotypically associated with hunting, drinking, and a penchant for the Confederate flag. Finally, in Bambi the deer’s eyes and mouth are replaced with glossy cut outs of Bambi and, in a nod to Mike Kelly’s found object sculptures, Ball hangs a headless stuffed animal below the print. This spotlights the exceedingly cute and pure pop-culture representation of animals. The thematic variety in the Deer Etchings exemplifies the differing degrees in which we esteem nature.  


Kate Ball, Owl & Virginia


Ball’s collagraph collages Blue Bits and Owl & Virginia probe further into horrifying hybrids between animals, humans, and refuse. In Blue Bits, she creates birds connected with thin, frayed copper wiring. The birds appear as an army of robots in serious disrepair. Upon close inspection, the birds are made up of collagraphs of paper towels and cheese cloth, and their eyes are made of embroidered hoops. Owl & Virginia is similarly peculiar. The collagraph of the owl (made of prints similar to those used in Blue Bits) holds strings in its french-tip talons that pull on the on the awkward leggy deer below as if it were a puppet. Bodies of the animals roughly take on characteristics of the human form, but the details are ill-fitting and strange. The owl has fake plastic toenails and black lace doilies for eyes. The deer has a large print of a toothy human mouth that dominates its face, leather ties that hold its joints together, and human hair that is attached to its tail. The animals seem almost alive, but their existence falls into an uncanny valley, too human to be read as animal and too animal to be read as human.


Taken together, Ball’s exhibition reflects our estrangement from nature. The handmade animal hybrids, like Frankenstein’s monster, are so alienated from their original source that they incite disgust. Ball’s process mirrors the way in which we create manicured parks in order to have a quasi-natural experience, although our streets, homes, and lawns push the natural further and further away. Nature is no longer the norm; it is strange and uncomfortable. Ball’s work is a haunting reminder of our utter lack of environmental stewardship in the age of consumerism and our hypocritical attempts at reconnecting with a natural world that we are complicit in destroying. 


By Harlee Mollenkopf