Barry X Ball is Sculpting the Virtual

The storied sculptor’s Frieze LA debut with NFTs was far from his first combination of the virtual and the visceral.

Many art audiences will know the name Barry X Ball, and when they see images of his signature stone sculptures, they will recall that, as he points out, he is perhaps the only contemporary artist today who has consistently been working in the traditional medium of stone sculptures, from which he most often carves figurative forms that evoke the classic styles of centuries past. Most, however, will not automatically equate his name or his practice with the more frenetic nature of the NFT markets that caused such a shift in contemporary art over just the past few years. But what may come as a surprise is that, as a sculptor who has mastered the most confrontational of materials like black onyx or sterling silver, Ball has in fact been accumulating an incredible archive of digital data through his initial, artistic methodologies that have long incorporated whatever cutting edge technologies were available at the time. In fact, his work, as visceral as the smooth surfaces of his stone forms appear, has long been informed by an initial process that incorporated 3D digital scanning, virtual modeling, rapid prototyping, and computer-controlled milling. So, when contemplating the prospect of Ball turning towards NFTs, it was clear to him that, unlike some artists, he had a wealth of material that could be adapted into a digital, fungible work. His Granulo-Specular Chiaroscuro Meta-Morph NFT series that was just released during Frieze LA 2023 harks back to a project he first conjured almost a decade ago, and reflects upon a world-renowned figure, Pope John Paul ll, who was seminal to Ball’s earliest years in New York, when he moved there from the West Coast in the late 1970s as a recent art graduate. With that in mind, Ball utilizes the unconventional format of the NFT as a conduit for a larger collaboration with South Korean technology company LG Electronics. With their accompanying LG Art Lab platform, Ball brings his 39-second NFTs to life through their incredible OLED TV, which appears to float seamlessly flush with whatever surface upon which it is affixed, the sharpness and intensity of its flawless screens picking up every minute detail of Ball’s complex, sculptural renderings.

Courtney Malick: Thank you so much for taking the time to tell me about this new project of yours.

Barry X Ball: Where to start?

CM: First can you say a bit about the partnership with LG?

BXB: I was approached by LG through NIA, who was basically hired by LG to find an artist—I had researched TVs, and had had LG TVs for my studio, and we’re actually building an LG TV exterior monitor because LG has the best technology—so when I was approached by them I thought, “Great,” because I know that they make the best screens, and I saw a union between their extraordinary technology and the possibilities that it extended for my work. Simultaneously my people had been saying to me for years, “Barry, you have 25 years of digital data—you’re not a kid with a JPEG—can we use all of that data?” So I said, “Yeah, we’ll see.”

CM: 25 years of data?

BXB: I was one of the first artists ever to be using technologies like 3D scanning, 3D printing, digital modeling, CNC, and robot milling.

CM: And when was it that you first started working with those modes?

BXB: 30 years ago!

CM: Even 3D printing?!

BXB: Well, the 3D printing came a bit later, but I came here actually, to Burbank, and got scanned, because that was one of the first places that you could get things scanned back then.

CM: Wow, that’s so cool!

BXB: Yeah, it was the same kinds of studios that do special effects, and I remember [at that studio that] there was a bust of Schwarzenegger…

CM: And then you sat next to him!

BXB: Yeah… That’s funny, you know, at the top of this sculpture there is an image of me screaming.

CM: Really?

BXB: That was done back when I came here 30 years ago. I shaved my head and I came out here. The LG sponsorship for this project was key. I’d been approached by other people, but when I would tell them what the budget was to do something on this level, they would run away, but LG was like, “Let’s go!” They were great. We also produced a soundtrack with Soundhouse production, and my idea was to try and tell a theatrical story in the art world—you know, like Andy Warhol’s hand-held, black and white, grainy aesthetic—that spoke to a sort of directness that artists’ are always after. The way I approach it is when they say, “don’t do something,” that’s the reason to do something. So, with these NFTs we’ve got 39 seconds to tell the story of this figure.

CM: Yes, I saw immediately that the works center on Pope John Paul ll and was curious how you came to him as your subject?

BXB: Well, I have to tell you, I’m not a Catholic, but I was commissioned almost nine years ago to do this major portrait of John Paul ll.

CM: So, was that commission from a religious institution?

BXB: No, it was by an incredible supporter of the arts and world-class collector, in fact she has the largest private collection of Futurist art, and she is the founder of the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York—she’s just a fantastic woman overall, and she also happens to be a Catholic.

CM: So, she really loved John Paul ll in particular? He was her guy?

BXB: No, she didn’t love him, I got to pick. And when I first lived in NY in 1978, John Paul ll was at the height of his power and was leading the solidarity fight against communism in Poland. He was also a very dynamic guy. I saw the ticker-tape parade [for him in NY] when I was 23 years old and there were giant crowds—he was like a rock star. He skied and he was a playwright. I mean, he wasn’t a perfect man, and he probably didn’t do enough about sexual abuse in the church, but he was a product of his culture. I was thinking about telling the life story of this man who affected me. I went to that event just to see what a ticker-tape parade even was and I saw this guy, who was really quite a magnetic presence. So this piece incorporates nine figures in it that range from when he was a middle-aged guy, to when he was older.

CM: Wow, it’s fortuitous then that you actually knew a bit about John Paul ll, even many years before this first commission that you were approached with ever came about.

BXB: Yeah! I had this idea, just conceptually, [that has to do with my approach to working with stone], in which case I am working on the surface of a mass. I can try to penetrate it, but, you really can’t do what you can do with metal, where you generate a portrait from the core outward. So in that sense, I’m breaking through the surface and working within that inter-penetration of space. That was the conceptual basis of this project. And then we went crazy and created the digital files—none of this was done from photographs of the sculpture. The object itself is still progressing.

CM: Oh, so there will be both the physical, sculptural work and the digital renderings of it for the NFTs as well?

BXB: Yes, we’re in the process of polishing it. It’s made in solid silver and weighs 80 pounds, and it was made in conjunction with the Italian jeweler, Damiani, and that has been a huge undertaking…but [it will be completed soon] and we will probably be working with Damien Hirst to show it in London. And in fact at the Barker Hanger in the booth of Robilant+Voena they have installed a diptique of two of my works juxtaposed with Damien’s. He’s become a supporter of my work, and he’s a very generous guy—a crazy guy—but a lot of fun!

CM: So the physical work will be one sculpture, but the NFTs feature a set of forms?

BXB: Yes, the idea was that you can see them kind of morph as it goes along with the soundtrack.

CM: Who did the sound component?

BXB: I was asking myself the question: “Why do NFTs have to be silent?” So it was important to me to include sound [in the work], so we composed the soundtrack with a leading Korean sound-house called The Limelight, and the visual production was done by a group called The Mill, which is a well-known special effects, advertising and CGI firm. You’ll see that [in terms of the materials, the first images that it starts out with are done in this] rough metal, like a base metal, and as we move through, it starts crisping up, and giving each piece more of a focus and greater detail. And then finally the metal washes over, in this case, what you’re seeing here is the silver.

CM: And there are four metals that a potential consumer of the NFT can choose from?

BXB: Yes, there is one in black steel, there’s copper, and then there is gold. And those are the very first NFTs that got dropped just today. There is a way to purchase them that is much more streamlined than most NFT marketplaces. It’s actually pretty cool because if you had a screen like this in your home you can go to their outlet called LG Art Lab, and there you can see my NFTs and buy them right from your home screen. So that was a big part of their concept—to broaden the reach of NFTs and their potential collectors. And that also appealed to me because over the years there have been really intelligent and interested people who have wanted to buy my work and haven’t been able to afford it and now with this series, with each of the NFTs priced at 1000 dollars, it’s a lot more affordable. Want to buy one?

CM: Honestly, I still don’t know entirely what I make of this new frontier.

BXB: I’m skeptical!

CM: Yes, me too.

BXB: But my idea was just to go for it, and see what you can produce, and that’s the reason that I do anything that I do. I don’t ever have a vision and then think to myself, “How can I realize that?”

CM: You don’t?

BXB: No, I just think, “Let’s do this, and then let’s do that, let’s incorporate that and let’s see what it all ends up becoming.” Because if you’re going to try to create something new I think illustrating your vision is not the way to do it. I try to tell a very dense story through my work, so there are a lot of layers: this is not exactly a minimalist sculpture.

CM: So how do these other video works relate to the portrait of John Paul ll?

BXB: These are the new stone series where I’m taking it one step further. I’ve made sculptures that I could not ever realize in the real world. So there are several versions, this one that you’re seeing here is the jade. There is also one in ruby, one in sapphire, and the last one, which is a special edition, is honeycomb calcite.

CM: And how did you choose those materials? Do they have specific significance?

BXB: Well I chose the four colors: red, blue, green, and orange.

CM: So you weren’t choosing the colors or the stones based on any religious affiliation? At least to me, red certainly is a color that comes to mind when I think of the Catholic church and the symbolism of color that is often embedded within its imagery.

BXB: No, I didn’t have that in mind. But I like the idea of positing this crazy thing within the contemporary art context, I mean, you have to admit that if that actual sculpture were installed here in this art fair people would be looking at it and thinking, “What the hell is that doing here?” It’s clearly out of context!

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