Merit Thursday

writes about

Christopher Corey Allen’s

From the bull, the bee & Christina Ballantyne’s Wrestling with Desire

A confession and a commitment before I begin my reflections:

-I am prone to reject highly academic assessments of art, and prefer to let my body lead me to my conclusions: never too stupid, never too emotional <3

-I honor above everything the responsibility to meet engagement with engagement: what a treasure it is that an artist has offered me, the viewer, something so rich. May I offer richness back.

When given the opportunity to engage with the works of Christopher Corey Allen and Christina Ballantyne, I was moving through a vibrant grief and violence, whose timbre was sharp and overwhelming. I wasn’t sure I would be able to uphold my commitment to match intensities with the artists present, but there is a sensory seeking I crave when I don’t feel like a person.

What was offered to me in that space was a gift: a tiny universe where every minute was a secret minute just for me, and every breath a sweet spiky reminder of my fragile internal world.

Beginning with Christopher Corey Allen’s “From the bull, the bee”: a collection of nearly symmetrical and highly textural sculptures made from scagliola. I was initially drawn to a piece called “Time Is The Thing A Body Moves Through”, the title here being a reference to a memoir by the brilliant trans author T. Fleischmann (if you want to cry and feel alive, read this book). Under normal circumstances I don’t feel attracted to symmetry, but CCA offers just enough variation in shape that I found myself seeking the varied bumps and curves and gestures with hunger. We are meaning-making machines who crave the “click”, the moment where things make sense. I found myself struck by the way that CCA allowed me to reverse-engineer this process. Rather than start with a chaotic image and find my way to “meaning”, these objects present themselves at a glance to be already “meaning made”. But as soon as I found myself examining each edge, each negative space, each new layer of pigment and of plaster, I felt the desire to seek an answer melting away. Somatically, it felt like the children’s game of cracking an imaginary egg over someone’s head and letting the yolk trickle down their back. I felt a strong initial sense of Big Brain Activation, but was then asked by the artist to let the objects settle into my nervous system and my molecules. I saw these sculptures very shortly after being victim to transphobic violence, unfortunately on the rise in this country due to recent legislative measures emboldening frightened people. It felt like such a gift to be offered this highly somatic experience. I still don’t quite know if I can muster any Big Brain assessments of CCA’s work, and I’m not sure I need to. Feeling big gratitude.

After coming back into my brain, I moved downstairs to take in Christina Ballantyne’s “Wrestling With Desire”. There is already something so special about the lower level of Hair + Nails; I settle into a very private energy when I am there, and this visit was no different. The collection of paintings offered by Ballantyne only enhanced this feeling of internality. (Forgive my forthcoming written assessments, if you would: I am not a painter myself and don’t know much about the techniques I’d like to celebrate). I was deeply moved by the hazy effect of Ballantyne’s brushwork. I can’t quite name what it did to me emotionally, but I found myself touching my heart a lot as I examined the vibrating edges of shape and color, which I could swear were actually dancing. This combined with the intensity of the colors brought some sweet and intense prickles of tears to my eye. I sense that my life is perhaps quite different from Ballantyne’s, as much of the subject matter didn’t speak to me in narratively obvious ways. But there is a STRONG sense of emotional communication that I can’t put words to. One piece in particular, “Leaving a friend’s house with a chick in the sky”, touched this corner of my heart. I couldn’t, if pressed, spin a yarn about what is “happening” in this piece, but I find myself with no desire to. The way the colors, shapes, and textures, and even the little expression on the chick’s face, flood my body with feeling— it renders me unwilling to understand the “right” answer. It would ruin it if I knew. In this case, I did experience some Big Brain activation. However, it was only so that I could wonder. My eyes felt clear of cobwebs and I felt the tender guidance of Ballantyne’s brush strokes in my imagination.

Both of these collections gave me such a loving container inside which I could abandon the tight and fearful need to understand everything perfectly. During a challenging week full of un-meaning, and an urgency to find meaning, it was such a relief to release into the openness of wondering.

Merit Thursday (he/him) is a trans/queer experimental filmmaker, educator, and curator. He is a ’23/’25 Jerome Hill Fellow, a professor at MCAD, and the host of Weird Stuff Only. Thursday makes work exploring queerness, desire, and healing.



Rachel Collier

in conversation with Christina Ballantyne

I was introduced to Christina Ballantyne through our mutual friend Mary Griffin while they were MFA candidates at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Right away I was struck by Christina’s warmth and openness and impressed with the mystery of her practice. She makes the kind of paintings that leave the viewer with more questions than answers. The paintings have an almost startling life to them, coming at you with frenetic whims of high risk for high reward, oozing with feminine desire, chaos and vulnerability. They offer the viewer a chance to feel emotionally intelligent and better equipped for the empathy singularity. This invitation is take it or leave it – in equal parts the paintings demand consideration and project ambivalence about feedback. I love them all and am writing this introduction from my first impressions only. I have since had some long-standing questions answered and have formulated new conclusions here in real recorded time. Christina’s Hair and Nails show, titled ‘Wrestling with Desire,’ is new work that deserves deep-diving consideration. The hybrid conversation/interview that follows is the result of an hour of conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Collier (RC):  I’ve always been drawn to your work because of its highly personal content – how did you choose painting as a medium for finding yourself?

Christina Ballantyne (CB): I didn’t study art in undergrad so I really only started painting a little over 5 years ago. It coincided with when I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy which affects feeling, perception and memory. I felt like everything was overwhelmingly intense all the time and I’d get a lot of seizures, probably four a month. When I started painting, that’s what it was all about. I would be constantly drawing all the time and started getting really into artists. It was clear that I was oddly obsessed with this and was also feeling lost from being sick a lot. It felt like painting was kind of the easiest thing to pick up and figure out as a way to move forward.

RC: After your diagnosis did you feel a sense of urgency for greater meaning in your life?

CB: I mean maybe not directly, honestly my feelings were just so intense. In the beginning, leading up to a seizure I would feel extremely euphoric. After my first one it felt like I knew all the answers in the world. I know this sounds crazy but if you describe ego death on acid or religious enlightenment, it was like that. Also, they would be intensely scary or sad, like someone died, it was just so physical. That’s why I had to draw, because the feelings were too much. I’d feel like this for days and then I’d get a seizure. The seizure itself wasn’t that bad, it was just impossible to keep it all in my body.

RC: So the paintings became a projection or like a recording of these emotions you are feeling?

CB: I mean, I haven’t gotten a seizure in three years actually, but I still feel affected by all of it. It’s an outpouring in the studio. My extreme feelings would be released by the seizure, oddly. I made what felt like a cohesive body of work related to all of this and then luckily got into grad school. I think my work is less cohesive now and so directly about this experience, but it helped me figure out quickly that painting was something I could figure out how to do.

RC: I love that, makes a lot of sense. It became important to figure something to do as a response to so much physical and emotional intensity.

CB: Yeah and it ended up bringing a lot more meaning to my life. It figures things out for me and I know myself much more through all of it.

RC: Amazing. Okay, so what is your painting environment? Describe what you’re doing when you go to the studio?

CB: I’m pretty messy and I work on the floor a lot because I need to buy a chair. It’s sixty dollars for the one I want which means I’ll just get nothing. But, yeah I’m doing a lot of different things at once and working pretty intuitively. I drift around a lot but if I have a deadline I’ll finish things. I’ve been doing sculpture too, mostly wood stuff, I only work on things I’m very naturally interested in because it’s work but I need to have fun.

RC: I think the main job of an artist is to maintain interest in what you are doing, so that makes sense to me…

CB: Yeah the more things I have circulating that I like, the better. I listen to Brian Eno on repeat every single day for years because there are no words to get caught up in and I get really in sync with my body and what I want to do. It’s been three years and I listen to it every single time I paint. Other music has too much energy or lyrics, I feel like it’s infiltrating my painting too much.

RC: I get it, I’m obsessed with Music for Airports and have listened to it for years. Something else I’d like to ask: in your show statement you talk about painting through your struggle for self-acceptance, how do you feel when you complete a painting?  Also, when is a painting complete?

CB: Maybe it’s about being honestly in touch with myself. I rely on my body to know when I’m being disingenuous. I think there is a way to practice self-acceptance by accepting the painting for what it is without attaching a million questionably true things onto it. It has to be a direct channel of who you are.

RC: So what I’m hearing is that you’re building on your integrity by creating something that is purely yourself?

CB: Yeah that’s a good way of putting it, I’ve always been a person who had to really get in touch with myself to be myself. I have to really sit a while to know what I think about something, even simple things like, what do I want to eat? There is something about painting where I can more easily know if I’m really being myself. I try to find a balance between intentional and subconscious things so I can give a full picture of my whole ego. Also, I have to be aware of my audience and existing in the art world, I think how is this going to be received? I have to balance all of that with what I am and what I want to do.

RC: Yeah, that brings me to a question I have for you that also relates to how I approach painting, which is as a way to make more of what I want to see. Can you relate to this approach and if so what do you want to see more of?

CB: I think overall that is relatable. I want to feel something when looking at a painting but there isn’t specific imagery I’m looking for, people get so hung up on that. I need to see and feel that someone is fully invested in what they make and that is what I’d like to see more of. I go back and forth with harsh judgements of artists, especially with instagram. Not to get too deep into what is called the debt aesthetic, but I feel like artists easily get distracted by what will sell. I want to see art that is made outside of trends, something where the artist is really in the painting.

RC: I absolutely agree with that, I would call that a spark. We want to see an artist going straight for their source. I think a lot about how painting is a spiritual practice and we are all talking to each other with a nuanced language. The payoff of learning the language is being able to read each other’s work. And you’re right, it has nothing to do with subject matter or representation.

CB: Yeah. So you mean a source like Hilma Af Klint for example?

RC: The source would be the place where Hilma goes to tap into something infinite or all knowing, like nature or god or ancestors. So many ways to interpret the source and it’s highly personal but you can see the interaction in the spark. I think the energy is real.

CB: Yeah, definitely.

RC: This is a good transition into talking about desire. You titled your show “Wrestling with Desire.” What do you think about the origins of your desire? Your title reminds me of Rene Girard and his ‘mimetic theory of desire’ where he says, “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” Is he right?

CB: It’s hard to know where the deepest root of desire comes from. I’m not familiar with this theory but something about it makes me want to disagree. I’m not getting a full understanding, but I have my own way of thinking about it. To me, desire is threefold. There are straightforward biological desires, individual desires from our personal experiences and cultural desires. But I guess what he’s talking about is the way they are externalized every day and become mimetic. Like if I constantly have a thirst to feel like I’m good enough, the desire can be named as wanting others to acknowledge that I’m good. But maybe the way we win our affirmations is by copying other people. I’m thinking out loud here but in the same way advertisers figured out that everyone wants to emulate the Marlboro Man, maybe there is a way that painting allows me to have a sense of control about how I could be perceived and emulated. But as far as a theory goes, I think desire is too raw to be calculated. It is more mysterious and uncontrollable than everything we are talking about. Does that make sense?

RC: Yeah it does. I want to get more into what qualifies something as mysterious, is it related to originality? Do you struggle with the desire to be seen as original?

CB: Not really, I don’t think I struggle with that quite as much. Maybe I struggle with wanting to feel affirmed and accepted. I go back and forth with that, wondering who is even the person that I’m trying to feel affirmed and accepted by. I try to not specifically ask myself ‘what do i desire?’ Like what you say about the source being outside of yourself. That is why people like the idea of God, it’s not so inward looking all the time. Painting pulls me back into feeling the universe and my place in it and I can feel it in the brush. Whatever it is feels endless but in a way I can handle. It’s a way to negotiate feeling not quite whole and having insatiable desire.

RC: Insatiable for sure. Also it’s worth pointing out that it’s easier for writers to make declarations and express concrete thoughts. Abstract paintings are less accessible because they can’t say anything so directly. To me that feels like an insatiable quality, keeps you wanting more.

CB: Yeah, that reminds me of Buddhist detachment and the idea that removing yourself from what you desire will make you whole. But that isn’t a perfect idea either. You could use that spiritual framework and still be holding on too tightly. Maybe you want to be enlightened or be absolved of your sins and go to heaven, you could become overly attached to something like that.

RC: Something I’ve always wondered about…the subjects of your paintings seem to be experiencing something extraordinary or even supernatural. It seems like they are on the verge of some kind of climax. What is that?

CB: Well it definitely relates to what we talked about earlier in the context of creating around my illness, but something I didn’t mention is how a lot of the paintings in this show have gone through a kind of free association process, similar to the writing process. I try to focus on my thoughts and whatever pops into my head will be the next thing I paint. Once in a while I’ll bring sourced imagery in but mostly I’m almost therapeutically observing and painting whatever I’m thinking about in the moment. I’ll think ‘baby chick’ or ‘eggs hatching’ and I try not to analyze it too much, then I’ll go back and kind of know what I was thinking about. This is great because I don’t have the best memory. Kind of amazing to me that I can tell you what I was thinking with pretty much every single painting I’ve made.

RC: That makes me wonder how interested you are in narrative vehicles because I definitely see stories in your paintings. Are you interested in film? Do you read fiction? Now it sounds like it’s coming from somewhere else entirely.

CB: Yeah I think it is. I like when a story has a lot of metaphors or symbolism. But also I love a story about an idolized person, maybe because they have become symbolic. I watched the Selena movie on my flight here and it was amazing and horrific. It sounds crazy but I’ll get obsessed with stories like that, especially a female heroine. All those stories become a springboard for things that really stick with me. So I would say that is my attraction to storytelling. Understanding how things or people came to be the way they are and what makes it interesting.

RC: Are you into Jungian dream analysis?

CB: I like the archetype thing for sure, and the universal symbols. I think that relates to my work a lot. A lot of people have told me to get deeper into Jung and I’m trying to. The interpretation of symbols is definitely in relation to the way I paint.

RC: To be honest there isn’t necessarily much appeal for me to understand what he says with a voice of authority. I think it’s just another tool to train us how to deconstruct for ourselves.

CB: I love that explanation. Also when everyone’s obsessed with someone, I tend to be like ‘shut up.’

RC: That is relatable. Speaking of deconstruction, I’m trying to figure something out. Your paintings really do stand out because they are mid-story, in the middle of something. I’m learning that you’re coming up with these complicated narratives while you are painting and I’m interested to get more into that headspace…

CB: I won’t think consciously of constructing something, it just happens. I think I reflect on moments that have stood out to me. Like I’ve been saying, I have this physically extreme feeling in my body that I can’t help thinking is more than the average person. I hate the idea of being seen as a person who thinks they have stronger feelings than everyone so I’m always dealing with that, my doctor is supportive about this and continues to walk me through how my temporal lobe is affected. One of the paintings in the show called ‘Chicken in the sky’ was about a severely uncomfortable feeling I had when I went over to a friend’s house. I couldn’t tell what the actual vibe was and was hoping the discomfort was in my head. I overwhelmingly felt like leaving but I was able to think rationally and wait for it to pass. I’m not going to let it turn me into a recluse. I know it’s just my body feeling things a little too much or a reaction to my strong medication.

RC: Well I think maybe we’ve stumbled into some kind of answer to a larger question. The idea that you have overwhelming feelings doesn’t offer validation because you know other people feel a lot too. So you are using painting as a lens to focus on recontextualizing these feelings until you have some physical evidence that you are the only person who feels this very specific and intense way.

CB: Yeah definitely, that is a great way of putting it

RC: Are there any pieces in the show that stand out to you as having a particularly interesting journey from start to finish?

CB: I guess all of them. All the paintings have at least three paintings underneath. I’ll paint over things and then remove a layer and keep what I painted over. One painting leads to the next. I guess the chicken one I was talking about earlier stands out because I did it in one sitting which is rare. I was really feeling something with that painting.

RC: There are two paintings, ‘Monkey Change’ and ‘I Want to Make Birds Sing,’ that are presenting scenarios unlike the others. There are looming masculine figures who seem to have some control over the outcome. Am I on to something?

CB: You are right about that with ‘I Want to Make Birds Sing.’ I look at a lot of pictures of artists in their studio and had been looking at a picture of Giacometti. He had all of his miniature sculptures in front of him, waiting to be cast. I was definitely using that photo. Also I was meditating and trying to get out of my head in the studio and I kept hearing birds singing out of my studio window. I like to really focus on a high quality interruption, something I can’t control so much. ‘Monkey Change’ went through a totally different process. That painting is more about my interest in intimate relationships, especially codependent ones, those can really get me relishing. For years I have stewed in that and painted about it but I finally have a normal boyfriend so there’s less to work with now. [laughs] ‘Monkey Change’ happened when I kept noticing a monkey pop into my head and I was also thinking about money. I’m definitely not a research person so I just googled ‘monkey and money’ and found a bizarre research study where they were getting monkeys to use money. Scientists discovered a breed of monkey, Capuchin monkeys, that have an insatiable desire for basically anything. They will eat marshmallows till they throw up and are a bottomless pit of wanting. So the scientists taught them how to exchange money for food and one of the monkeys started becoming a monkey prostitute, she would have sex to get money. I thought that was insane so I painted it, it’s a real thing.

RC: That’s incredible, great story! You really make me want to branch out from non-representational painting. Okay, one last question about a piece in the show, ‘Peace like Nymph of Spring.’ How did you come to reference this Northern Renaissance painting?

CB: I liked the painting as an image before knowing anything more about it. Lucas Cranach the Elder was a prolific German painter who made an incredible amount of paintings. He was court appointed and heavily involved with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. They were about breaking away from the Catholic church and focused on individualism and modern democratic ways of thinking about religion. His dad taught him how to paint and his son was his assistant and he was also an amazing wood carver, definitely worth checking out. I have talked about wanting a thing or feeling but there is also wanting a state of being and that’s what drew me to ‘Nymph by a Spring.’ She’s really looking relaxed and peaceful which is a place you get to be when you’re not wildly wanting things. And there is a quote on the painting. She says, “I am the nymph of the sacred spring. Do not disturb my sleep, I am resting.” So yeah, I liked the image and what it was about just kind of fit.

Rachel Collier is an interdisciplinary artist whose work focuses on the release of internal visual language held in the emotional body resulting in imagery that is radically uplifting, riding the line between the mysterious and the familiar. Her materials are activated by a meditative and repetitive process rooted in non-representational painterly tradition.

Rachel Collier has her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and recent solo shows include HAIR+NAILS Gallery (Minneapolis, MN), the Nemeth Art Center (Park Rapids, MN), Saint Kate’s Arts Hotel (Milwaukee, WI). Recent group shows include: NADA Miami 2022 (Miami, FL), Wassaic Project (Wassaic, NY), and Rochester Art Center (Rochester, MN). Residencies: The Wassaic Project, Wassaic NY (2021, 2022); Anderson Center Jerome Emerging Artist Residency and Fellowship, Red Wing MN (2022); Nido invitational residency and exhibition, Monte Castello di Vibio, Umbria, Italy (2022); and Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Snowmass Village, CO (2022).