Paper mache dog heads -- some with friendly pink tongues, others with toothy snarls -- covered the walls at Michael Ballou’s recent Brooklyn Museum show.
He’s a multimedia artist, whose work incorporates sculpture, performance and collaboration.
Fascinated, I visited his Williamsburg studio, located in an oasis of fruit trees, roses and a vegetable garden. Wearing jeans, loafers and a baggy linen shirt, Ballou cracked jokes as he toured me around the property.
When he whistled, Whiskey came running. In short order, Ballou was showing off his rescue dog’s moves: On cue, he jumped, crouched, rolled, walked on his hind legs, and, as a finale, leapt, lightly, onto the artist’s shoulders.
Tarmy: Where did you get your incredible dog?
Ballou: From a shelter in Williamsburg called Barc. He was off in a corner, sitting in a pet carrier. And he wasn’t like excited or angry -- very aloof.
After I adopted him, I found out more about his background: Bernadette Peters is really into rescuing dogs -- she was at a shelter where they were about to kill him. She stopped it and brought him to the no-kill shelter where I found him.
Tarmy: How did you start making animal heads?
Ballou: The very first one was a performance. Have you heard of this thing called Four Walls? It was sort of a clubhouse laboratory, where we had blender nights -- we got artists and writers who liked each other’s work to put together an evening.
For one event, I told my friend I’d dress as a bear for his reading. I’d found a bear costume on Coney Island, but I had to make the head. And then when I started making these things, the objects themselves started to become intriguing. I like their sort of broken narratives.
Tarmy: Do you have collectors who look for this?
Ballou: Not many. But I have friends who really like the show. The piece in the Brooklyn Museum had 60 dogs from the neighborhood.
Tarmy: You took their photos?
Ballou: Yeah, or they just come by the studio. It’s relaxed.
Tarmy: What made you go large on the boar?
Ballou: Sometimes I like them big. The biggest one I made was for the restaurant Diner. I did a portrait of one of the animals that was served -- a cow’s head.
It was 300 pounds, and we needed to lift it up to the top of the roof. There was a Polish crew down the street -- they lashed this cow head to a front loader; it came off the ground and started turning in space, and now was attracting a small crowd of 60 or 70 people and everyone started to applaud.
It was like a Fellini film.
Tarmy: Do the less grandiose heads sell?
Ballou: I’ve sold those -- it depends on what the size is. The small ones are about a grand. Expensive for jeans, but cheap for art. John Currin I am not.
Tarmy: That head - is it a badger?
Ballou: That’s a kitty. His name is Adolf.
Tarmy: I guess I don’t have to ask which broken narrative belongs to Adolf. You’ve been part of the Williamsburg arts scene for some time...
Ballou: About a thousand years.
Tarmy: You own your studio and house?
Ballou: I got this place in the 1990s for $250,000.
Tarmy: That’s not nothing...
Ballou: No, I got it for a pretty good price. But I am not going to end up poor from this thing.
Tarmy: What do you think of the current arts scene here?
Ballou: It’s pretty much nonexistent. You’ve got culture here, but mainly it’s music and food. The visual stuff has moved elsewhere. It got priced out.
Those of us who own a place can stay here and that’s great. You just sort of have to accept the nature of things. What was happening here in the ’90s was extremely special, but those kinds of scenes never last forever anyway.
They’re very brief moments.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation)