Review: Laura Ball’s Journey at Second Street Gallery

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“Tree of Life,” part of a collection of Jungian, animal-focused watercolors by Laura Ball, is featured at Second Street Gallery through February 25, alongside abstract paintings by Rachel Hellman. Photo courtesy artist. “Tree of Life,” part of a collection of Jungian, animal-focused watercolors by Laura Ball, is featured at Second Street Gallery through February 25, alongside abstract paintings by Rachel Hellman. Photo courtesy artist.

Watercolors are unruly. Each wet stroke wants to bleed into its own erratic shoreline from the brush’s edge as the pigment sinks to varying depths in the paper. The medium is merciless, magnifying the technical limitations of a painter, but it’s rewarding to those with the patience to master it.

“They come out of a subconscious, mythological reference,” Ball said as she explained her work to a sizable crowd during her First Friday opening. In Laura Ball’s “Journey,” up at Second Street Gallery through February 25, the rich textures of her brushwork conjure a menagerie of fantastical animals and vividly vulnerable people. In one painting, a rhino thrusts from the paper’s negative space, only Ball renders the beast’s horn from the bill of a toucan, his leg from a bighorn sheep, and half his rump from that of a giraffe’s. Some strange magic seems to hold the composition together and make it work.

Ball has been studying classical mythology for the past three years, including a year she spent in Greece, and her recent paintings explore the traits and trials of the archetypal hero’s journey, which she believes lie buried in the collective unconscious. Each painting begins with hours of observing animals at the San Diego Zoo, and follows up with meticulous studies, a few of which are on display in her show. “It’s really a meditative, very slow process,” Ball said.

The result of the process is a delight to explore. Visually roaming across the landscape of one scene turns up the golden glitter in an elk’s antlers, then a snake half hidden in a row of bloom-studded flowers. The details always invite a second look, because you may find a pair of minuscule, carefully detailed hummingbirds.

In the paintings of Ball’s that feature people, most are wearing masks of animals. A pregnant woman in one composition sits on a pile of multi-hued stones, wearing a giraffe’s face as she gazes into the eyes of the real thing. In another painting, an unmasked woman with a stern expression works with piles of yarn in one corner. The cloth she weaves blossoms into a torrent of azure waves violating the edge of the canvas,  overwhelming rowboats bearing women, one who’s wearing a mask of a zebra and another wearing a mask of a chimp.

The painting compels contemplation: What is the woman with the yarn thinking? What turned her inward? What’s in her head?  Does she even know?

Symbolic questions aside, Ball’s work is also simply fun. Her painting succeeds in creating its own world, one expertly diffused drop of color at a time.

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