Strands of mythology, familiarity, sex and the artist’s own practice form a dense Gordian knot of meanings and implications in the three installations created by Mike Ballou for the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum. Part of the institution’s ‘Raw/Cooked’ series, which presents the work of under-the-radar Brooklyn artists, Ballou has infiltrated various galleries and installed his work. At times, this is under the guise of a mock display; at others, he entirely disregards museum decorum, reclaiming the space of both art works and visitors as a dog-run-cum-Gates-of-Hell-cum-living-room-disco.
Ballou has long conflated fable with oddly useful objects: in past installations he has created chandeliers of painted foam bird heads, Pinocchio weather vanes and pencil holders masquerading as a bizarre cross of farm animal and indiscriminate sexual organs. For ‘Raw/Cooked’, those ‘Pencil Holders’ (2011–13) are found in the Brooklyn Museum’s Luce Center, a high-density display space that exhibits everything from Olmec jades to Spacelander bicycles. Situated at waist level, just below a selection of white marble busts, the mutant eggshell and pink sheep, cows and even the torso and legs of a plastic Hulk Hogan figurine, luxuriate in their almost erotic glossy enamel coating. These mutant forms could be mistaken for some sexually repressed Victorian porcelain fad, long a denizen of the delightfully hodgepodge Luce Center, if not for the instantly recognizable QR code ‘flowers’; squares of cardboard taped to green stems weighted in place by flesh-coloured blobs. The QR codes direct viewers to texts loosely, or poetically, related to the artist’s work by writers such as Kurt Hoffman and Stephanie Barber.
While none of the beings have heads amongst the ‘Pencil Holders’, ‘Dog Years’ (2013) – located in the American decorative arts galleries of the museum – is entirely heads, carved from rigid foam and painted in lifelike colours, the vast majority canine, with a few rabbits, fish and birds tossed into a floor-to-ceiling case that once contained period furniture. The dog heads are portraits of specific beasts, and the tumult and variety; boxers, pointers, terriers and Labradors among many others; piled one on top of the other in a conscious disorder attempts to avoid a direct reference to a totemic reading.
On the one hand, ‘Dog Years’ connotes a camaraderie of species, much like Edward Hicks’s allegorical painting Peaceble Kingdom (c.1820), a gem of the Brooklyn Museum’s American primitive collection which depicts a benevolent parliament of beasts: lions, lambs and oxen, as well as cherubic toddlers. Another reading is drawn from the jarring and unnatural angles of many of the heads, and the disorientating assortment of sizes, the empty eyes and dangling tongues – they seem to summon a whelming and fierce natural force: Cerberus made flesh. The effect is slightly mitigated by the presence of a stool, from the artist’s studio, left as if by happenstance, but clearly a carefully placed prop bridging the space between the display case and the carpeted floor of the gallery. The wit of that gesture is augmented by the presence of several heads on the floor, looking in bemused crisscross directions, like man’s best friend frollicking in the park.
Though it is the entry into Ballou’s odyssey through the museum’s collection, Go-Go (2012) – a mobile dangling from the ceiling of the fifth-floor elevator lobby – is more of an arrival. Based on the face of a pug named Go-Go, the half-gilded half-matte cut-out casts spinning silhouettes on two of the walls, simultaneously livening the space and momentarily blinding the viewer like a mutant mirrored ball at the faerie disco punned at in the name of the piece. A soundtrack chosen by the artist plays in the background while the visitor, momentarily entranced by the dancing shadows, suddenly becomes aware they are standing on a carpet of spraypainted figures and gilded shapes, inverting the action on the walls. The carpet is a particularly domestic gesture, impishly tricking the viewer to participate in the installation through the mere act of standing on it. All of Ballou’s vignettes throughout the galleries have this antic, down-home feel – a sense of DIY magic. Despite the fact that the simple desk-fan that energizes Go-Go’s endless rotation is in plain view, that fact does not entirely dissuade one that the face wouldn’t spin and shimmer on its own power anyway.