Project Series 14: Charles Timm-Ballard
Charles Timm-Ballard brings together the traditions of painting and ceramics to make landscapes of earthen materials fused into slabs. The tension of his work derives from the interplay between the earthbound, sculptural quality of ceramics and the more ethereal realm of landscape painting. For this exhibition, Charles Timm-Ballard presented ten new works that investigate the impact of human activity on the local environment.
Timm-Ballard, who taught ceramics at Pomona College, has always been interested in dealing simultaneously with formal, aesthetic concerns and with current social and political issues. His content skirts the conventions of landscape painting, focusing on the boundaries between beauty and devastation. Going beyond the use of painterly glazes of ceramic art to evoke nostalgic response to the beauty of nature, the artist employs them to examine seriously the impact of our actions on the earth.
Timm-Ballard says that he is attracted to the challenge of making landscape images out of “fused, feldspathic ceramic material, the stuff that 98% of the earth is made up of,” and works toward achieving a rich luminosity with ceramic glazes. Through a process that is almost alchemical, he literally transforms earth—minerals, mud, rocks—into landscape images built up by means layers of porcelain, stoneware slip, rust, and chunks of slag. After an initial firing, this becomes the surface he then inscribes, drawing images and geometric divisions, and pressing in plant roots to create the tree-like forms of the finished landscapes. Using the kiln as a painting tool, he layers glazes and metal oxides in sequential firings until he achieves the desired level and depth of color.
Since Timm-Ballard’s recent move from the Midwest to Southern California, his work has shifted from exploring urban industrial landscapes to a focus on the local environment and its dilemmas, particularly air pollution. The hazy light of Southern California and the refracting nature of the particulate matter in smog create breathtaking colors, but they also demonstrate the destructive influence of human activity on the environment. The simultaneously beautiful and sickly luminous gray-greens of Timm-Ballard’s newest slabs suggest this dichotomy.
The exhibition of work by Charles Timm-Ballard was the fourteenth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
At first glance, Charles Timm-Ballard’s artworks, with their luminous shadows, watery translucence, ghostly trees, and hazy atmospheres, look like painterly images of romantic landscapes. Almost immediately, however, the objects themselves—thick, heavy slabs—clearly convey that they are made of clay. The tension of Timm-Ballard’s work lies within this resonant space between the earthbound, sculptural quality of ceramics and the more ethereal realm of landscape painting. Timm-Ballard brings together the traditions of painting and ceramics, not only to question the exclusivity of categorization, but also to highlight the shifting and mutable nature of contemporary art.
From his early work to his most recent, Timm-Ballard has been interested in fusing formal concerns with current issues in order to probe the edges of surface reality. His subject matter skirts the conventions of landscape painting, focusing on the boundaries between beauty and devastation. Instead of merely using the painterly glazes of ceramic art to evoke nostalgic sentiments about the beauties of nature, the artist employs them to examine seriously the impact of human activity on earth. By combining a number of sources, he has invented an unusual vocabulary to address both art historical concerns and social issues.
In discussing Timm-Ballard’s work, art historian Howard Singerman has written that “the problem he addresses is the spoiled land and our relation to it, but his process echoes that of the factories that line the lake. His raw material, too, is the earth, and his iridescent colors are the products and residue of industry. His images are made of rust and slag; his surfaces scraped and scarred like the land.”
Timm-Ballard’s earliest experiences remain present in the issues that currently occupy him. The artist grew up in industrial South Milwaukee, on the banks of Lake Michigan, a city formed around a factory that built strip-mining equipment. The contrast between this urban, industrial man-made landscape and the relatively untouched space and natural beauty of Lake Michigan had a profound influence on his perceptions of the world, and, subsequently, his art. As Timm-Ballard notes, his work has always “mined the physical and psychological landscape of the working-class, urban-industrial Midwest.”
More than ten years ago, Timm-Ballard began to question the relationship between the pictorial qualities inherent in drawing and painting and the sculptural concerns of ceramic work. While still in graduate school studying ceramics, he became interested in the conventions of historical landscape painting and began to question the relationship between these very different media. Attracted to the intensity and depth of the colors found in ceramic glazes, yet equally intrigued by the representational issues of landscape painting, Timm-Ballard started to make paintings out of clay, giving up the directness of painting for the richness of color inherent in the ceramic medium. He was willing to risk the uncertainty of working with glazes because he knew what he was looking for—the sensuous richness of the ceramic surface, the depth of translucent glazes, the mass and volume of the three-dimensional medium. It would take the artist nearly ten years, almost to the current work in this exhibition, to achieve in ceramic the effects he could achieve in painting.
Attracted to the challenge of making landscape images out of, in his phrase “fused, feldspathic ceramic material, the stuff that 98% of the earth is made up of,” Timm-Ballard continues to work toward achieving a rich luminosity with ceramic glazes. He considers the process alchemical, in that he literally transforms earth—minerals, mud, rocks—into images of the landscape. After constructing a slab/tablet form, Timm-Ballard builds up the image through layers of porcelain, stoneware slip, rust, and chunks of slag. After an initial firing, this becomes the surface he then inscribes, drawing images and geometric divisions, and pressing in roots to create the tree-like forms of the finished landscapes. Using the kiln as a painting tool, he layers glazes and metal oxides in sequential firings until he achieves the desired level and depth of color.
Citing a broad range of artistic influences, Timm-Ballard approaches his source material like an archeologist. He turns to the celadon greens and copper reds of ancient Chinese ceramic glazes; the staining techniques of Delft ceramics; the almost transparent quality of color and light in Vermeer’s interiors and landscapes; the luminous landscapes of 19th-century American painters Ralph Blakelock, Martin Johnson Heade, George Inness, and Albert Pinkham Ryder; Ross Bleckner’s combination of traditional painting techniques with a very contemporary construction of imagery; Euclidean geometry; and perspective devices of European landscape painting. These “pieces” of art history become tools for representing landscape and exploring the nature of spatial organization.
Timm Ballard incorporates personal and historical images into the drawing stage of his process, thus reflecting the way we construct the spaces we inhabit. Inscribed perspective lines establish a grid that controls the pictorial space. Within that ordered arena, he includes his signature elements of the landscape—root forms suggest trees and rivers, but also nerves and veins, satellite images of rivers, the nervous system of animals, the roads and freeways linking cities, and even the transmission of information over the Internet. These images become metaphors for our role in the universe; mirroring the way organic forms function similarly in the world to manufactured objects—the smallest veins and pathways eventually merging into massive arteries and freeways.
Since Timm-Ballard’s recent move to Southern California, his work has shifted to reflect the different environmental conditions of the local air, land, and atmosphere. Instead of exploring the relationships between the urban industrial landscapes of the Midwest, the artist has turned to one of our most significant environmental dilemmas—air pollution. The hazy light of Southern California and the refracting nature of the particulate matter in smog create breathtaking colors, but they also demonstrate the destructive influence of human activity on the environment. The simultaneously beautiful and sickly luminous gray-greens of the newest slabs suggest this dichotomy.
Timm-Ballard explores the impact of human activity on earth as an attempt to understand human experience. His intention, he says, “is not to create a one-dimensional comment on environmental issues but to create a metaphor for the ongoing human self-reflexive project.” Likewise, noted British artist Damien Hirst, while profoundly different from Timm-Ballard, uses his work as a platform to examine the social constructions of nature. Timm-Ballard’s art echoes and responds to Hirst’s referencing of the natural world through an analysis of control and accumulation. Hirst’s conceptual devices and approaches to subject matter resonate most closely with Timm-Ballard’s concerns. In one well-known piece, Hirst sliced a cow into segments and placed each in an individual vitrine, thereby revealing the internal structure of the animal. This breaking through the surface to expose the intricate systems of nature’s workings has clearly had a profound impact on Timm-Ballard. He consistently focuses on the natural systems of the world, struggling to see beyond the surface of things, probing the edges of perception, all in order to make sense of our place in the universe. Timm-Ballard brings to both the ceramic idiom and the medium of painting a fresh perspective and innovative vision, challenging art historical boundaries and defying traditional categorization. His compelling landscape slabs question the impact of humans on earth and reveal the intricacies of nature’s systems, thus providing a forum to address some of the most pressing preoccupations of contemporary society.