Things don’t make sense in Laura Ball’s world. A giraffe melts onto an elephant’s body. Parrots burst from a horse’s mane. Human irrationalities take monstrous form. Her universe presents the unknowable and unwanted, all that we wish to avoid. Laura Ball’s energetic, frenzied watercolors, part of her newest exhibition, Animus, are an attempt to express the collective feminine unconscious, brutal and chaotic, through animal form.
Animus, which runs through August 20 at Morgan Lehman Gallery, foregrounds the Jungian conception of the female unconscious, the animus. Using Jung’s theories as an ideological framework, Ball conceived this project as early as 2004, while she was living with her husband in Greece. There, she found herself incredibly taken with classical mythology, and, in particular, the writings of late American mythologist Joseph Campbell.
While reading Campbell, Ball was intrigued by the hero’s journey and began conceiving of her own heroines. She noticed that their heroic journeys would eventually move into the psyche; they would transcend the physical confines of reality and dip into the psychological realm. “My heroines took me inside my own mind,” she says. “They forced me to analyze myself.”
Laura Ball works from impulse. She has a preoccupation with the fantastical and the absurd; animals, in her mind, are as in touch with the natural world as humans are removed from it. With this project, she tries to capture the interiority of a mythical heroine, a psyche free of causality or rationality. Violence, life, birth, death, sex, and judgment play off each other with reckless abandon. Her lines are at once instinctive and precise, fluid and meticulous. The images she creates are mythological in scale, yet they are meant to move us viscerally.
To strike this curious balance between feral emotion and the exactness of human thought, Ball abandoned the solidity of acrylics. She was, after all, highly intrigued by the freedom presented of watercolor. “I didn’t need to be bound by the real, which is what oils represent,” she tells me. “Watercolors are typically associated with fluidity, dreams, lightness. I wanted to represent that world.”
Ball’s compositions are filled with masculinized imagery – a curious detail, I thought, considering her work is an exploration of the feminine unconscious. There’s scarcely a composition that doesn’t include such overtly phallic symbols as an elephant tusk or a rhinoceros horn. There is a reason for this. According to Jung, the female unconscious manifests its fears and desires in the form of a masculine shadow. Aggression and dominance, characteristics our society has typically coded masculine, usurp what many may term a more sensitive “feminine” sensibility.
That said, Ball brings incredible nuance to Jung’s conception of the gendered psyche. She does more than simply exploit the notion of the masculine shadow. Her images drip with male-female psychosexual interplay. Octopus tentacles – or, in Ball’s words, “mini-vaginas” – choke phallic elephant tusks. Occasionally, you’ll notice that some of the animals are actually humans wearing masks. These humans masquerading as animals, Ball explains, are meant to be women participating in their own psychological visions. Male and female realms intersect.
There is nothing political about Ball’s work; to project feminist or anti-feministic readings onto it, she says, is too constricting. It is first and foremost a purely psychological experience, seeking to capture the human condition outside of time and space.