Old Masters and Black Bodies

"Called" -- Images courtesy of Tyler Ballon

Narrating the Bible with Tyler Ballon

By Pamela A. Lewis

In art history, the term “Old Master” can refer to both a person and to what that person creates. In the former sense, it can be any painter of skill who worked in Europe prior to about 1800. In the latter, “old master” is ostensibly a painting by such an artist, although one can speak of an “old master print” or an “old master drawing.”

The artists who comprise the long list of Old Master artists are as important as what defines the term. The well-known heavy hitters are there: Giotto, Mantegna, Leonardo, and Dürer, to the more unfamiliar, such as Hans Springinklee or Willem Heda. With the notable exceptions of Artemesia Gentileschi, one of the 17th-century’s most accomplished painters, and French Rococo and Neoclassical painter Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, renowned for her portraits of Marie Antoinette, most Old Masters have been men. They have also all been Europeans.

“Deposition” by Tyler Ballon

Tyler Ballon, a 24-year-old African American figurative artist, has been working quietly and persistently at redefining this long-held understanding of “Old Masters.” From his studio in Jersey City’s MANA Contemporary Center, where he holds an Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation (ESKFF) residency, he turns out large-scale canvases like those old masters typically produced in their day. But the common themes of old master paintings have also strongly inspired the graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, who traces to early childhood his first encounters with these works’ typical depictions of mythological heroes, and, more significantly, with biblical characters and saints.

Despite what Ballon describes as the “challenging environment” in which he grew up, where many of his peers were either incarcerated, struggled to support families, or died violently, his life took a different path, and he credits his parents (who are both pastors in the Pentecostal Church) and his love of art for “saving” him. Art (which competed with his other love, boxing) was merely a hobby for Ballon at first, 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 National Young Arts Foundation’s Young Arts award, 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, which told the Bible’s dramatic stories in stained-glass and sculpture. And as a high school student, he became acquainted with the works of Michelangelo and other great painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. He was impressed by their technical skill, use of color, and profound knowledge of the human anatomy, as well as their ability to turn the Scripture so powerfully into “real life” on the canvas.

“Mary in Prayer” by Tyler Ballon

Ballon’s deep affection and respect for the work of the old masters gradually came into conflict with his growing and discomfiting awareness of their Eurocentrism. 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 or the background of paintings or portrayed in servile roles. One exception is Balthasar, recounted in legend as one of the three magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child. Yet, as Ballon explains, Black people were depicted neither as biblical characters nor as saints.

It is into this pictorial vacuum that Tyler Ballon has so determinedly filled his work. 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 margins of the canvas to the forefront, portraying them as Biblical characters. Ballon uses his paintings to document the struggle and pain still embedded in the contemporary Black experience, while interpreting these circumstances within the Christian narratives of faith and redemption.

In their meticulous detail, Ballon’s paintings often evoke the work of American illustrator Norman Rockwell, and are frequently confused with those by Kehinde Wiley, the African American artist whose paintings have also referenced European masterpieces, and whose portrait of former President Barack Obama has drawn accolades. While Ballon draws inspiration from a variety of old master painters, the style and use of color seen in Caravaggio (1571-1610), a prominent Roman Renaissance and Baroque painter, are reflected most prominently in his work.

Mary in Prayer (2018), a nearly full-length figure work, is one of Ballon’s most explicitly devotional canvases. The subject, her eyes heavenward and wearing silver jewelry symbolic of faith, is caught in a moment of quiet yet focused prayer. Although the open book (suggesting the Scriptures) on her lap and her open hands in the pose of receiving the Holy Spirit place “Mary” solidly in Western iconography, Ballon is clearly making a powerful statement about whose body can embody holiness.

Ballon makes full use of his storytelling powers and well-positioned light to heighten the pathos and theatricality of The Deposition (2018), another Caravaggio-inspired work. Here, the mourners, one of whom locks his eyes with ours, are captured in the same fan-shaped arrangement as those in Caravaggio’s 1603 The Entombment. But in Ballon’s hands they have become residents of an African American neighborhood lamenting over the murdered body of a loved one. Ballon has cast himself as the corpse.

“Take Up Your Cross” by Tyler Ballon

In Called, which dates from 2019, another young man (again, the artist), sits on a damaged set of steps, wearing a baseball cap. He is interrupted while counting the money he holds in both hands by a white jacketed but faceless figure who holds a Bible. The young man looks up, his right hand pointing to himself, as if to ask, “Who, me?” The work powerfully recalls Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew  (1599-1600), particularly in the stranger’s extended hand (which itself references God’s hand touching Adam’s in Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel’s The Creation of Adam), The same hand points directly at the young man.

In the soberly titled Take Up Your Cross (2020), the artist offers an ambiguous portrayal of its subject. Drenched in dramatic, raking light, he looks penetratingly at the viewer, appearing to be just another seven-year-old kid clutching an unusual object he has found. But, in truth, he is the young Jesus embracing the instrument of his death.

In these and in all his growing oeuvre, Ballon underscores the importance of the human form. His models are friends, family, and members of his community. This, in his view, expresses most effectively all that can be expressed in life. Like the old masters, he defines that form with vivid color, light, and gesture. Whereas some may accuse the artist of a lack of originality, his references to and evocations of the old masters’ works are in keeping with long-held practices; and the social issues and the people who reveal them in his paintings are validated in God’s sight. While not a member of a faith community, Ballon self-identifies as a devout Christian whose faith in God is unshakeable. For Ballon, God is the source of his gifts and his “greatest agent,” who brings opportunities to him.

The nation’s recent racial tensions, however distressing, have inspired growing interest in and discussions about the lives of African Americans and other people of color. Tyler Ballon has contributed meaningfully to this exchange by bringing underrepresented bodies and a European art form to tell some of the Bible’s most compelling stories, affirming that they, too, can be included with all the saints and can reflect the imago Dei.

Pamela A. Lewis writes for The Episcopal New Yorker and Episcopal Journal.


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