Coming to a full realization of an artist’s work can be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle: artistic influences and inspiration must be fitted together with conceptual frameworks; works of different size and media must align with an understanding of how earlier work influences later. With good artists, though, these pieces come together to form a unified whole that brings new insight to the appreciation of their work. Andrew Ballstaedt is one of these artists. His latest work, which can be seen this month at Park City’s Meyer Gallery, is somewhat puzzle-like itself, interlocking bands of color fitting together to form palette quilts that he calls “Family Flags.” These non-objective works, however, are part of a whole with earlier series, including cityscapes and naïf monster drawings.
We can begin piecing together the puzzle of this artist by looking to a motif found in earlier works like “The City With Scribbles.” Anyone familiar with work of Paul Klee, who Ballstaedt cites as a strong influence, will immediately recognize the tightly knit community of pyramid-roofed houses. The representation of the city gives no heed to depth but only a frontal grid-like structuring where color takes the form of what the artist calls “color families.” This motif of the city appears again and again in his work. Sometimes it is just a couple of houses, sometimes a score; frequently they rise up on a hillside or form the shape of a hill; they may be protected from danger by an overarching rainbow; all, though, give a sense of warmth and safety, of the strength found in community.
Ballstaedt has always had a sense of the importance of relationships, of the people around us who form a community. He grew up in a large family of 12 children, and in a close-knit religious community. His mother encouraged the children to create art, making it a family activity. “She would tell us to draw stories from the Book of Mormon and she would tell us a quote from a prophet: ‘the greatest art hasn’t been done yet.’ It was magical because we had a mom who valued art and believed in us.” His work begins and ends with family and community and is definitive of the philosophy that nothing exists as a single entity as “every atom in the universe is connected to every other atom in the universe.”
A second major section of the puzzle is found in Ballstaedt’s drawings of various sizes and finishes, some fully realized miniature paintings. He calls them his “monsters.” Made of the most rudimentary shape, loosely rendered, with a large bulbous head, a gaping mouth with teeth like little daggers, squat legs and squat arms — with little daggers for fingers and toes, four of the former and three of the latter — great white spheres for bulging eyes with off-centered pupils, these monsters are hardly scary. They are sometimes simple line drawings and sometimes fully realized paintings. And they can be a few inches tall or mural size. But what makes them truly works of art is their cross between arbitrariness and the absurd.
In a recent work, a monster figure is sharply delineated against a bold black ground, its body of warm banana yellow highlighted with fine tonalities of a rusty melon to add real dimension. Above the monster, in colorful, sharply delineated lettering, are the words “i think i may be happy.” This sentence may be read as a spontaneous verbal gesture, something fragmented and detached, random for its own sake, somewhere between the very fecund zone of the arbitrary and the absurd, just like the form of the monster is somewhere between this zone of the arbitrary and the absurd. But just as nothing exists on its own, together they create a composition that pleases, delights, enchants, and causes one to wonder at the imagination of Ballstaedt who makes manifest such an original jewel of a miniature painting.
A second monster, with the same simple body structure, but painted in rich mandarin orange with vermilion red for tonalities, is not frontal like the first, but in an act of valor, is turned to the side, his head in profile, jaws gaping, his right arm high above him holding a dagger, his left arm in front of him also holding a dagger. He is causing no harm, and not to be feared, nor could he be, this delightful wide-eyed monster, sharply delineated against a robin-egg blue ground. Above him in bold and colorful lettering are the words “relax I’ve got your back” and below the forward-thrusting arm, “i’m your big brother.” Here, again, the words are somewhere between the arbitrary and the absurd, as is the monster, but together, these nonsense words and this delightful monster make a unity and a narrative structure that is focused on color and imagination and child-like rendering and sophisticated painting that charms and amazes in their freshness and unique presentation. This isimportant work.
The words also suggest that feeling of unity, the community on the hill, of the other works. These two bodies should be understood fluently before the later body of Ballstaedt’s large-scale non-objective painting is to be understood. To call one body later, however, is deceiving because Ballstaedt has, over the past several years, worked his way back and forth through various series, even including the monsters in some of his city paintings.
Most recently, though, the non-objective aspects of his work have come to the fore. “Wire 1,” for instance, is an astonishing achievement in painterly precision and articulation. It is both multileveled and multidimensional, painted in a crisscrossing of myriad bright hues and subdued tonalities. As the myriad lines cross, they form connections, and in some areas this is entirely dense, and in some areas this is somewhat thinned. We can see that Ballstaedt is still interested in the idea of relationships, of connections; we could read this as another meditation on the dynamics of relationships, the irregular horizontal and vertical white that is beneath the lines forming a grounding structure, like a family or community.
Now that there are all the pieces placed, the bigger picture can be seen, and can be seen clearly and lucidly in Ballstaedt’s current work that is a compendium of all of the above. These are his flag series. A work like “Family Flag 10” is a composition of color, line, horizontals, verticals, patterns, proportions, and as a work of pure formalism, it is a masterpiece in the vein of the Minimalist form, which the viewer might commune with the essential structure and cogitate meaningful relationships, thus completing the work as fine art beyond fundamentals of pure form.
And the viewer is free to do just this with Ballstaedt’s flag series and embrace the essential beauty. But this is not the purpose of the artist in their creation and the fabric of meaning is something very substantiated and can resonate as the larger picture is understood and as one comes to understand Ballstaedt himself. “In elementary school I would talk my cousins into coming into my room and doing marker versions of the same thing, listening to the Beach Boys with this community of cousins,” says Ballstaedt. “There is something deeper to them, something tribal about them, it’s almost subconscious but I think there are things that families have done together artistically for thousands of years and I don’t think it’s surprising I’m doing these. We have a totem pole and I have one of my flags next to it. It’s not that different.” From the “city drawings” and other drawings come the “color families” that translate as the color patterns that become vertical bands composed of short horizontal lines of color families. These vertical bands might be evenly or irregularly spaced in width, or can even have a lovely curve to each. Some liberty is taken with some of the families and some are strictly adhered to. Which represents the best of families.
And beyond a Minimalist reading there is a narrative aspect to these abstractions. So finely delineated in color and crisp line, left alone, taken as a single unit, each band would be something between the arbitrary and the absurd. As a painting it would be nonsense. But as a compendium, it is something entirely original, it is something exciting, bold, unique and fresh, full of energy and full of life, as the best families can be. The flag series is just that, each a flag, each one special, to represent family, Ballstaedt’s family. “I’m really fascinated by growing up in Salt Lake with mostly whites; but you see Polynesians and they have a tattoo representing their family or a sarong representing their family and I like the idea of each flag and when you see it you think, ‘That represent’s Andrew Ballstaedt and a part of a line of a family and I existed in a long line of family and there will continue to exist a long line after me.’” The quantity of connections is infinitesimal, and the complexity and dimension of the structure is eternal in possibility.
It is safe to say that Andrew Ballstaedt is forging his own ground as an artist. While many artists are determined to stretch far left of center by the manifestation of obscure concepts tenuously linked with obscure form, Ballstaedt is certainly a unique and original artist by being honest with himself, and using as a vehicle for his art the truthful expression of his tremendous love for family, his family, and the importance it has had and has in his life. As a subject, it is about love, the tie that binds, especially in the best of families.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.