thINK by B. Neufeld originally posted June 30, 2017
book review: Ballpoint Art ・by Trent Morse
Top left, outer book jacket art : Thomas Müller, Untitled 2014, ballpoint pen on Arches paper, 115 x 160cm (45.25 x 63''). Above, book cover art : Lori Ellison, Untitled 2010, ballpoint pen on notebook paper, 21.6 x 27.9cm (8.5 x 11''). Below : Rebecca E. Chamberlain, Johnson Wax Factory Screen (one of triptych) 2008, ballpoint ink on vintage tracing cloth, 317.5 x 104.1cm (125 x 41''). All artwork © respective artists.
Click on an image above to read the fully archived article.
Published by Laurence King Publishing Ltd ・ London, England
Just as so many presumptuous or naive ballpoint prodigies tripped over
each other to have you believe they 'came first ', so came the race for
First Place in formally documenting ballpoint pen art history. Interestingly,
Wikipedia got there first, roundabout 2012, with an incomplete but fair
overview of the genre. That ersatz encyclopedia's account, however,
seems to have fallen short of art world acceptability and might've actually
been the spark that set subsequent writers on their respective courses of
corrective surgery. Among them was Orlando Lebron, a ballpoint art
collector and writer, who, with the expressed intent of ''creating discourse,
no strings attached '', began publishing The Ballpointer in 2014 as a
kind of trade journal chronicling noteworthy goings-on in the medium.
Next came Illustrator and School of Visual Arts professor Matt Rota's
book, The Art of Ballpoint, published in 2015. In it, Rota presented his
own selection of artists using ballpoint pens—mostly up-and-comers from
New York art school crowds, students and instructors alike—along with
a ballpoint art history buffer and a series of drawing exercises.
Art writer Trent Morse's recently published Ballpoint Art, which touts
itself as 'the first compendium of art made with ballpoint pens', now
stands as the most current take on the subject. Morse turned to art-speak
semantics when questioned about assertions of being 'first ', informing us
he'd embarked upon his book prior to Rota and categorizing Rota's
The Art of Ballpoint as being more about technique, but Rota had also
covered ballpoint art history—even threw in a brief history of the pen ; J.J. Loud, Biro, et al—and the artists he introduced, although light on ballpoint hall-of-famers, comprise as much of a 'compendium' as those Morse presents, making Ballpoint Art 'first ' only in the sense that Rota didn't call his book a 'compendium'. I'm not even sure calling Ballpoint Art a 'com PEN dium' (get it ?) is a pun anyone intended (strategic italicization usually helps make that clear). Morse's Ballpoint Art is merely the latest entry from amongst those who reckon themselves in-the-know. Considering itself 'the first' is, therefore, besides the point (pun intended).
That kind of marketing misdirect—claiming to be 'first'—was, on its own, enough to make me approach Ballpoint Art with a level of skepticism, but, admittedly, I approach most of what I read about 'Art ' with similar caution. I'm an optimist, at heart, always anxious to give credit where credit is due, but I am also not one to gush. Morse and the folks over at Laurence King Publishing have succeeded at producing a fine 'compendium' which covers plenty of ground, but whether or not Morse's book is an informative READ becomes secondary. For an art book, it's unfortunately not a very good SEE. Thomas Müller's dynamic ballpoint linework gracing the cover is effective in attracting the eyes of passersby, and his work received art directorial care inside, as well, but the remainder of the book's art content should've received as much consideration. Unfortunately, much of it is sabotaged by poor art directorial choices. Whose idea was it to print an art book on such porous, off-white paper? Poor Toyin Odutola, whose mixed-media ballpoint artworks are dark to begin with, suffers most; the subtleties within her mixings become even less appreciable. Morse and the artists themselves extol the beauty of 'ballpoint blue' throughout the book, but the printing faux pax robs much of that blue of its beauty. The respective artworks of Il Lee and Rebecca E. Chamberlain, which are all about that blue, are additionally sapped of impact by reduction. A double-page spread of Ignacio Uriarte's large-scale scribbles—16 uniformly-dimensioned works which could be mistaken as Il Lee color tests—also don't seem as impressive in reduction for the printed page as they might as expensive wallpaper for sale in a gallery, and those four pages could've been put to better use.
Imbalanced, sometimes inexplicable content also leaves me thinking Morse was simply in the right place at the right time, a writer looking for something new finds a topic ripe for exploitation. Morse claims ten years experience in writing about art, but ballpoint art seems to be a recent addition. If his earliest experience writing about ballpoint art dates from the 2014 ARTnews assignment he cites as impetus for writing Ballpoint Art, that's still almost a decade late of the initial surge of interest and subsequent popularity of the medium in the wake of Juan Francisco Casas' viral debut, circa 2006, which, itself, occurred well after the pre-internet presence of ballpoint forefathers Il Lee and Lennie Mace. Morse's ARTnews article (and a few offshoots he penned, at least one of them put to use in hawking his book) covered many artists whose work had appeared in the group exhibition Ballpoint Pen Drawing Since 1950, held in 2013 at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, essentially making Ballpoint Art a belated catalogue of that exhibition. Morse credits its curator, Richard Klein, among those he turned to in preparing Ballpoint Art, explaining the academic slant of Morse's art choices. Art academia brings loftier ideals into the picture and often favors credentials over actual talent. Art media testimonials, New York gallery representation or artwork in the collections of (insert Art Institution name here) are what keep those dogs chasing their own tails, placing importance upon artwork which requires scholarly spin, whereby one needs a BFA in over-intellectualization to understand why an artist used blue. Seeing as Morse is positioning himself as the go-to voice of ballpoint pens for the Whitney set, even with his own personal expertise still a work-in-progress, it's no surprise he places his faith on the knowledge of would-be arbiters of what's important. Readers who don't know any better, mostly impressionable art students, take the word of such authorities as law, setting a shaky foundation for all that follows. I reckon myself the one to remind them that art history is just as subjective as the art itself, and capable of just as much bias as home-team-spirit. Having said that, feel free to disregard me, too.
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Hopefully Morse is simply ignorant of ballpoint goings-on beyond his understanding of it, not playing dumb in service of agendas. Either way, four pages wasted furthering the importance of Jan Fabre's ballpoint chicanery? Fabre attracted 15 minutes of fame in the 1980s by 'drawing on a castle'. It was the shark-in-formaldehyde of his era; art-as-audacity at the start of a generation where 'con' and 'artist' were conjoined, suckering anyone who would buy their proverbial bridge. In ballpoint terms, Fabre could be considered the viral Casas of that period. As is often the case with hype, the 'castle' looks to be more of a manor house, the drawings show no expertise, and Fabre employed a team of assistants to handle the doodling. I wouldn't be surprised to learn an art grant was involved. It's unclear whether Morse had any direct contact with Fabre, as the Belgian artist's entry is presented in the form of an artist statement, Fabre explaining his work in the same way The Ballpointer presents artists on its PICKS page (Morse handles several artists that way). In Fabre's own words, we at least learn that the structure was prepped 'by a professional team': covered in paper to receive the ballpoint ink. Morse allots a full page to a photo of the structure but the photo shows more landscape than 'castle' and no clear evidence of applied 'drawing'. Many examples of Fabre's ballpoint work also suffer from the same problems of muddiness and reduction which taint most of the book. Morse could've simply allotted Fabre an art sample with a caption in the 'condensed history of ballpoint art ' section, which is just about all Fabre deserves. Another problem of hype: just because it happened doesn't make it worthy of anything more than a footnote. Click here to continue reading the full article ...
Since 2014・Volume 6
When he's not script-doctoring for TV, Bruce Neufeld is the opinionated uncle of The Ballpointer contributors. More often than not, he's just that annoying guy who drops by the office, backseat browses and hopes to be thrown a bone. The Ballpointer doesn't always agree with his ''Ain't No Conversation If There Ain't No Argument'' style of reportage, nor do we condone his insensitive codgery, but, the views he offers are just as valid as the next, and, The Ballpointer is an equal opportunity outlet. No points of view are suppressed here. Feedback is welcome.