By Pamela A. Lewis
The term “Old Master” painters always brings the well-known heavy hitters to mind: Rembrandt, Giotto, da Vinci, Dürer, and Mantegna, who are on the long list of European men (and a few women) who, between the 13th and 19th centuries, produced some of the greatest paintings in Western art.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “Old Master” was “a pre-eminent artist of the period before the modern; especially a pre-eminent western European painter of the 13th to 18th centuries.”
At first glance, contemporary artist Tyler Ballon may not remind anyone of the traditional image of an “Old Master.” On the day of his Zoom interview with Episcopal Journal, he was clad in a T-shirt bearing the words “God vs. my enemies,” and jeans.
From his canvas-packed studio at the Mana Contemporary Center in Jersey City, N.J., the 24-year-old African-American figurative artist turns out large-scale paintings like those that Renaissance and Baroque-era European artists typically produced.
However, the common themes of old master paintings have also strongly inspired Ballon, a Jersey City native and graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He traces to early childhood his first encounters with these works’ depictions of mythological heroes, and, more specifically, biblical characters and saints. Over the last several years, Ballon has used old master techniques from celebrated works to draw attention to the challenges facing Black Americans.
Ballon grew up in a “challenging environment,” where many of his peers were incarcerated, struggled to support families, or died violently. But he credits his parents (who are both pastors in the Pentecostal church) and his love of art for setting him on a different path.
“Art saved me,” Ballon asserted. At first it was merely a hobby that competed with his other love, boxing. But his now-deceased grandmother, upon seeing a drawing he did of her, encouraged him to “keep it up,” because it would bring him and the family success.
In 2013 and 2014, he received the Young Arts awards (presented by the National Young Arts Foundation in Miami), and since 2014, his work has been included in several group exhibitions in this country and in Sweden.
During his years attending a Roman Catholic grammar school and church, Ballon was exposed to and fell in love with traditional iconography that tells the Bible’s dramatic stories
in stained glass and sculpture. As a high school student, he studied the works of Michelangelo and other great painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
“I was always very observant, and I noticed and was impressed by their technical skill, use of color, and profound knowledge of the human anatomy, as well as their ability to turn the Scriptures so powerfully into ‘real life’ onto the canvas,” Ballon said.
However, his deep affection and respect for the work of the Old Masters gradually came into conflict with his growing and discomfiting awareness of their Eurocentrism.
“I felt a separation from the art because all of the figures were White people. I loved the work, but none looked like me. It left me feeling excluded from the conversation,” he said.
Representations of what is now often termed the “Black body” in European art have been scant and largely peripheral. Black figures, frequently unidentified, were relegated to the margins, in the background of paintings, or portrayed in servile roles.
One exception is Balthazar, recounted in legend as one of the three magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child. As Ballon explained, “We live in direct relationship to our heroes. If our heroes are in the Bible and yet don’t resemble us in images, we can’t see ourselves as trying to be like them or trying to do what they’ve done.”
Ballon has filled this pictorial vacuum. Using the tools of the old masters — grand canvases and oil paint, and fluently speaking their iconographic language —Ballon has moved Black bodies from the shadowy margins of the canvas to the forefront, portraying (and also honoring) them as biblical characters.
His paintings document the struggle and pain still embedded in the contemporary Black experience, while interpreting these circumstances within the Christian narratives of faith and redemption.
Ballon’s meticulously detailed paintings often evoke the work of American illustrator Norman Rockwell, as well as that of Kehinde Wiley, the African-American artist whose paintings also reference European masterpieces, and whose portrait of former President Barack Obama drew accolades. Ballon is not bothered by the comparison to Wiley, whom he met when he was 18 years old and whom he idolizes for the older artist’s technique and his broad knowledge of art history.
While Ballon draws inspiration from a variety of old master painters, the use of color and light, strong composition, and powerful storytelling seen in works by the renowned Roman Renaissance and Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571-1610), are reflected most prominently in his work.
Ballon brings these elements together to emphasize the pathos and theatricality of The Deposition (2018), one of his most pointedly Caravaggio-inspired works. Here, the mourners, one of whom locks his eyes with ours, are captured in the same fan-shaped arrangement as those in the Italian master’s 1603 The Entombment.
In Ballon’s hands, they have become residents of an African-American neighborhood lamenting over the murdered body of a loved one. As a kind of homage to Caravaggio, who often included himself in his paintings, Ballon has cast himself as the corpse in this work.
With an economy of gesture and expression the artist gives his attention to hands in Called (2019), where another young man (again, the artist), wearing a baseball cap, sits on a damaged set of steps.
He is interrupted from counting the money he holds in each hand by a white jacketed but faceless figure who holds a Bible in his right hand while pointing to the young man with his left. Looking up, the young man points to himself, as if to ask, “Who, me?” Inspired by Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), the work represents subtly yet powerfully the decisive moment when the soul is summoned.
Take Up Your Cross (2020) offers an ambiguous portrayal of its subject. Drenched in dramatic, Caravaggesque light, he looks penetratingly at the viewer, appearing to be just another elementary school kid clutching an unusual object he has found. But in truth, he is the young Jesus embracing the instrument of his death.
Mary in Prayer (2018), based this time on Francisco de Zurbáran’s The Young Virgin (1632-33), is a nearly full-length figure work and one of Ballon’s most explicitly devotional images. The open book (suggesting the Scriptures) on Mary’s lap and her hands positioned to receive the Holy Spirit place her solidly in Western iconography, yet Ballon uses her to address current conversations about whose body can embody holiness.
Although not a member of a faith community, like the message on his T-shirt, Ballon is forthright about his beliefs and self-identifies as a devout Christian who dedicates all of his work to God’s glory.
“God is the source of my gifts and my greatest agent, who brings opportunities to me,” he said. He feels closest to the Old Testament’s Joseph, on whom God bestowed the gift to interpret dreams, whereas Ballon feels that he has received the gift to interpret the Scriptures through his paintings. His goal is to become one of the greatest figurative painters in the art world, and to be a mentor to other young artists. But, again, he said he leaves that in God’s hands.
Ballon is part of a small but growing group of artists who have returned to representing the human form. His models are friends, family, and members of his immediate community, and in his view, the figure expresses most effectively all that can be expressed in life. As was true for these painters from Europe’s past, composition, vivid color, light and gesture are his currency.
Whereas some may accuse the artist of a lack of originality, his references to and evocations of their works are in keeping with past practices of artists borrowing from one another’s masterpieces. After all, imitation is the highest form of praise.
But more importantly, Ballon is contributing meaningfully to the growing interest in and discussions about the lives of African-Americans and other people of color by bringing together their underrepresented bodies and a European art form to tell the Bible’s compelling stories. His work unapologetically affirms that these bodies can portray sacred characters, be the bearers of eternal truths, and can reflect the imago Dei.
Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. She attends Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue in New York.