Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Morag Ballard at Lemon Street Gallery, Truro

Approaching Lemon Street Gallery one morning in January, I had a feeling that Morag Ballard’s first solo show in Truro would surprise and delight me. I was not disappointed. The pristine white walls of Gallery One provide the perfect backdrop to her striking artworks. Spare, clean lines on curved boards or undulating surfaces induce a feeling of calm, while reliefs and collages set out to tease - and challenge - the eye, oscillating between the two- and three-dimensional. Geometric form takes precedence over colour, yet the shimmering hues, meticulously applied, imbue the canvases with a lively rhythm.
In some of her works, the manipulation of perspective is reminiscent of an Escher drawing. Mesmerised, I found it difficult to turn my attention elsewhere. Yet the abiding impression is one of balance and harmony. The show continues until 8th March, in celebration of the work of an artist who, up until recently, has attracted more attention in London than the south west.
South Facing 2008 ~ Oil on canvas 30 x 40 in
Visiting Morag a couple of weeks later, I received a warm welcome and a reviving mug of coffee, and felt relieved to be protected from the approaching February storm. She works from a studio in the heart of Penzance. Light and airy, with a lofty ceiling and breathtaking views taking in the wide sweep of Mounts Bay, this space has provided the artist with a wonderful working environment since 2003.
Morag was born in London and remembers being fascinated by shapes from a very early age, endlessly drawing and colouring them in. After leaving school she had a spell in Italy as an au pair. Returning to London, she became a student at Chelsea School of Art, then discovered sculpture at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. Her studies there brought her into contact with leading figures such as Richard Deacon and Antony Gormley. Experimenting with plaster, string and fabric, she produced bold and individual installations.
Italy beckoned again when, in 1986, she was awarded a student internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The experience made a powerful impression on her. Here she had the opportunity to absorb works by the Russian Constructivists, the paintings of Jean Helion and the intriguing assemblages of the American sculptor Joseph Cornell. Here also she met her future husband Alan Kingsbury, who had moved to Venice to pursue a painting career. Their relationship prompted him to review his plans, and the couple spent the next five years developing their art practice in south west Scotland.
Coast Wind 1989
Box construction
17 x 7 x 2¼ in.
1990 marked the start of Ballard’s long association with England & Co, a London gallery noted for exhibiting installations and box constructions. A mixed show entitled ‘Boxes & Totems’ included Quoit, a box construction showing the influence of Cornell, which Ballard created in 1989. A series of solo and mixed shows at England & Co followed, charting her artistic development over the next two decades. In a catalogue essay of 1991, Sister Wendy Beckett declared that ‘her boxes and constructions delight by their enchanting freedom of invention ... she has a special gift for luminous use of white and her colour has a sober joyousness ...’
Quoit 1989
Box construction
7 x 11 x 2¼ in.
After holidaying in Cornwall, Ballard and her husband found that the county’s magic had worked its way into their hearts, so in 1991 they left Scotland to begin a new life in west Penwith. The responsibility of bringing up their son and daughter over the next few years restricted Ballard’s opportunities for unfettered creative expression, though she continued to exhibit successfully in Exeter, Plymouth and London.

Shoreline 2000/2001 ~ Oil on canvas 12 x 18 in.
The interrelationship between the two- and three-dimensional, as expressed in the language of constructivism, has always been at the core of Ballard’s art practice. After her move to Cornwall, elements of the landscape and coastline of the south-west peninsula began to infuse an art practice in tune with the essence of post-war St Ives abstraction, yet transmuted through her personal vision.
More recent canvases reflect a fascination for the forms of man-made features and their relationship with the natural world, expressed through curvilinear planes and soaring spirals which bestow energy and vigour. Ballard’s acquaintance with a specific place can offer what she describes as ‘a structural drama’. This provides the basis for an artwork which comes into being after a long period of contemplation and exploration. During this time elements are selected, dissected and re-arranged with the aim of creating a harmonious composition, as aesthetically pleasing as listening to a piece of music.
Carcassone 2003 ~ Oil on canvas 40 x 50 in.
The evolution of her work has coincided with continued representation in London – most notably at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, Cadogan Contemporary, and a series of London Art Fairs. In the autumn of 2013 two of Ballard’s canvases were selected by Liz Anderson, art editor of ‘The Spectator’, for inclusion in ‘The Discerning Eye’ at the Mall Galleries.
As I was leaving Morag’s studio she showed me the prototype for a new artwork with moving parts, which perhaps signals a change of direction - and a fresh challenge - for this artist of formidable powers. But we may have to be patient. Ballard can spend several years on an artwork before she considers it complete. Indeed, she pointed out a canvas on the wall which was exhibited in 2007, and which she is currently planning to re-visit.
Torque 2004
Oil on board
10 x 7 in.
During my research for this article, I consulted Peter Davies’ authoritative book, St Ives 1975-2005: Art Colony in Transition. The front cover is illustrated with a painting which embodies the spirit of abstraction in Cornwall during the post-modern period. That image is Noon by Morag Ballard. The text highlights the fact that, while drawing on the legacy of Barbara Hepworth and John Wells, she has taken inspiration also from continental purism. In his earlier book, St Ives Revisited, Davies writes that ‘Ballard achieves a rare distinction ... by reverting back to, and revitalising, the language of that earlier era’.
Noon 2003
Oil on canvas
10 x 12 in.
Her current Lemon Street Gallery show places Ballard among an illustrious roll-call of artists who have exhibited there in recent years. These include the late Sandra Blow and Paul Feiler, and contemporary artists Kurt Jackson and Neil Canning. Each has made his or her mark in building on the legacy of abstraction in Cornwall. To me, it seems entirely fitting that Morag Ballard should have joined their ranks.
Equation 2010 ~ Oil on board 6 x 8 in.
© 2014 Helen Hoyle
Morag Ballard’s work can be seen at Lemon Street Gallery and on her website at
Further reading:
St Ives Revisited: Innovators and Followers by Peter Davies (1994)
St Ives 1975-2005: Art Colony in Transition by Peter Davies (2007)

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