Saturday, May 18, 2013

Ballpoint Pen Art Since 1950

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Ridgefield, Conn.
Runs to Aug. 25

Making art with a ballpoint pen, the subject of an exhibition at The Aldrich, brought to mind my own brief career in fifth grade with the medium. Inspired by watching drag races on ABC's Wide World of Sports, I used a ballpoint pen on lined paper to draw dragsters while sitting at my desk in school. Heavily influenced by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, my dragsters featured exaggerated engines with dual carburetors and huge manifolds, driven by a stick figure with his hands on the steering wheel and a smile on his face. I was famous among the critics, my classmates.

To put on an entire exhibition of ball point pen art, Ballpoint Pen Drawing Since 1950, does not seem unusual to me. From reading curator Richard Klein's essay, I found that I was not the only grade-school, ballpoint pen artist. Russell Crotty drew stick figure surfers riding surfboards on waves of doodle-like swirls. Later in his career, he drew ball-point drawings of astronomical phenomena, taken from observations he made as a serious amateur astronomer. If only I had stuck with my ballpoint. Who knows where I might have progressed from my dragsters?

Jan Fabre Tivoli Castle 1990-2007
Courtesy of Aldrich Museum

The exhibition shows a wide range from the pedestrian ballpoint pen, with skecthy portraits on book covers by Alberto Giacometti to moody inked-over photographs by Belgian artist Jan Fabre who completed hundreds of ballpoint drawings between 1977 and 1992, according to curator Klein. The heavy layering of ballpoint ink gives the works an intriguing chiaroscuro effect. You find yourself looking in every dark corner for something to emerge.
One ballpoint "method" that does not seem to be represented is a transfer technique that also uses the heavy layering of ballpoint ink. I'm not quite sure how I "discovered" this technique -- perhaps from my fingers inadvertently picking up blobs of ballpoint ink while writing and depositing the mess a few lines later when my fingers again made contact with the paper. Whatever the genesis, I began heavily inking irregular shapes on a sheet of paper and then turning the paper on to a clean sheet and rubbing the top sheet with a ruler or knife handle or spoon.

The resulting "print" was faint, since the ballpoint ink was not particularly wet. Still, the faintness and varying intensity of the color was part of the fun. So, although curator Klein writes that many thought that the ballpoint was the death of good penmanship, I discovered a small artistic phenomenon from the scratches and smears of my sloppy handwriting. And inexpensive ballpoint pens.

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