My name is Ken Johnson, and I am the author of “Ball and Cone.” In my day job I write art reviews for the New York Times, a newspaper. I am 60 years old.
I’m having an exhibition of Ball and Cone drawings and paintings at Beverly’s, a bar on Essex Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The show opens Sunday October 6 at 8 p.m.
Here is an interview that Claire Donner of the excellent donnerpartyofone tumblr conducted with me via email:
Q: People seem to like origin stories. What is the origin of Ball and Cone?
In the fall of 1976 while in grad school, I made my first oil painting, a dreamy image of a small brick house with a tall cone standing just outside the open front door and, visible through a window, a blue ball in on corner of the warmly lit interior. (Neither object had eyes or feet.) In retrospect, I think it was about my anxiety over having gotten married just a few months earlier; I wasn’t quite all in psychologically. The following spring, I gave the painting to my best friend from high school Dell Trecartin and his bride Cathy as a wedding present. For many years, it resided in their basement rec room in Ohio, an enduring presence for their two sons, one of whom grew up to become the famous video and performance artist Ryan Trecartin. Years later, Ryan told me that the painting had fascinated him when he was little and that it influenced him more than any other artwork he knew of. After he finished art school, he appropriated it and took it with him to the various cities he lived and worked in with his entourage of collaborators and hangers on. And it came to pass that on arriving in Philadelphia some years later that it was stolen from the roof of his car, to which it had been tied. A tragic loss. After that I thought that I should make a new version of the painting. A few months ago I made a small drawing inspired by its memory. I made the ball and cone more explicitly anthropomorphic than they were in the original painting. That was “Ball and Cone 1,” in which Cone looks in through a window at Ball, who is sitting on the floor looking sleepy and bored.
Q: The floor of what? It seems like the adventures of Ball and Cone always take place either inside an unfurnished architectural space or in plain air, but you almost never see the outsides of the buildings, or what sort of larger environment they are in.
A: What almost always seems to be going on has to do with relationships between inside and outside. When Ball and Cone are inside, they are looking out or in a process of going out. Their shadowy doppelgangers often are looking in at them. Crossing over the boundary between one state and the other is a recurring drama in Ball and Cone. Apropos of this, my mother sent me this bit about a psychological phenomenon called “the event boundary” (I forget where she got it from):
“Ever walk into a room with some purpose in mind, only to completely forget what that purpose was?
Turns out, doors themselves are to blame for these strange memory lapses.
Psychologists at the University of Notre Dame have discovered that passing through a doorway triggers what’s known as an event boundary in the mind, separating one set of thoughts and memories from the next.
Your brain files away the thoughts you had in the previous room and prepares a blank slate for the new locale. Thank goodness for studies like this. It’s not our age, it’s that stupid door!”
Q: Speaking of states of mind, it is remarkable how much emotion you seem to get out of characters whose only expressive faculty is a single eyeball. I have a theory that when the reader takes in the on-panel circumstances, they project their own feelings back on to Ball and Cone - but maybe that’s not giving credit due to your bold, stark cartoons. What is your secret?
A: Somehow the mind/brain system has a way of enriching what enters consciousness through your optical equipment and through your other senses. This is happening all the time whether you’re looking at “real” things in the world or images on a flat surface. The excitement of comics is in the way the mind fills in a relatively meager sensory input to create experiences of extraordinary emotional, cognitive and imaginative depth and breadth. I like to play with how little is needed to make that happen. One of the not-so-secret secrets of Ball and Cone is that they are like children in a perplexing, sometimes scary, sometimes fun world. I guess that’s something everyone has lots of feelings about. I know I do.
Q: This makes a lot of sense to me, because I often unconsciously superimpose the idea of “rods and cones” over Ball and Cone. Maybe this is also because their entire faces are composed of a single eyeball. It is interesting that their adventures are so emotionally charged, since the presence of threat is felt, but the nature of the threat is unclear. For instance, you have an episode in which Ball and Cone are actually murdered, but it doesn’t wind up being a big problem for them. Similarly, there’s a sense of intimacy between Ball and Cone, but it isn’t any clearer than the basic idea of a companionship; they could be siblings or romantic partners or in a parental relationship, but they’re not telling. Do you deliberately exploit this kind of vaguery for its emotional potential, or is the writing part of Ball and Cone more of a free association process?
A: Nothing I do with Ball and cone is conceptually premeditated in the way my answers here might suggest. I work out of some combination of image and feeling. What I’m trying to do most deliberately is making something funny. They’re not called “comics” for nothing.
That said, the comic is, for me, a kind of philosophical playground. It seems I tend to think in terms of universal sorts of relationships and situations. That’s why the comic is so abstract. So companionship seems to me a kind of relationship that any two people can be in together. At first I thought that Ball and Cone’s relationship might be sexual, but then it seemed that would over-determine certain types of situations and events. It would be more about the relationship between them than about their relationship as friends to the situations that befall them and the actions they undertake. For Ball and Cone as traveling companions the possibilities seem more open-ended.
The experiences they undergo also are universal: being inside and outside; going from one place to another; watching and being watched; following and being followed; being bored, being excited; feeling safe and feeling scared; being trapped and escaping entrapment, and so on. The things that they do and that happen to them are things that all people do and experience.
A major theme has to do with being limited. They only have one eye each and they don’t have arms. Real humans would be like gods to them. But real humans are limited, too: why don’t we have eyes in the backs of our heads or four rather than two arms? Being limited is a condition of being. But so is over-coming limitations. Despite their inadequacies, Ball and Cone have some pretty interesting adventures.
Having said all that, it remains a wonder to me that they elicit emotional responses in me and in their readers.
Q: You are not from a comics background in the strictest sense, neither personally nor professionally. How did you decide to convert the concept of an old painting to an ongoing web comic? Are there certain comic artists that have inspired you?
A: When I made the first few drawings last April, I knew there would be more to come, but I had no idea it would become a web comic. A friend insisted that I start posting on tumblr, which I didn’t know much about. The comic format was something I played with back in the late 70s and early 80s. (See image, a pencil and gouache from back then).
I’ve always loved the comic style and the intersection of Pop, Surrealism and Psychedelia. Some favorite artists include John Wesley and Jim Nutt. From the comic world: R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns and Lynda Barry. Too many others to mention here. And, of course, Krazy Kat.
Q: Indie comix have experienced a huge revival in recent years, but curiously, the most successful creators don’t reflect the hairy, wet aesthetic rebellion of the ’60s underground, but rather the hygienic, adorable affectations of Japanese consumer imagery. Ball and Cone don’t really look like anything so easily namable as Astro Boy or Hello Kitty, but they are awfully kawaii on their own terms. If it was important in the 1960s to defy or pervert expectations of cuteness from cartoon characters, is it important in some different way to embrace or exploit cuteness now? What are your feelings on cute?
A: Of his time drawing cards for the American Greetings Corporation, R. Crumb recalled, “My boss kept telling me my drawings were too grotesque. I was trained to draw ‘cute’ little neuter characters, which influenced my technique, and even now my work has this cuteness about it.” Crumb seems abashed about the cuteness in his work, but without it I doubt it would be nearly as compelling. I think I would lose interest in Ball and Cone if they weren’t so darn cute. It’s kind of embarrassing, though, a grown man doing these cute little things. What’s that about?
An interview with a philosopher named Sianne Ngai I came across recently went a long way to helping me understand. She wrote a book called “Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting.” At the start of the interview, she explains, “I’m interested in states of weakness: in “minor” or non-cathartic feelings that index situations of suspended agency; in trivial aesthetic categories grounded in ambivalent or even explicitly contradictory feelings. More specifically, I’m interested in the surprising power these weak affects and aesthetic categories seem to have, in why they’ve become so paradoxically central to late capitalist culture. The book I’m currently completing is on the contemporary significance of three aesthetic categories in particular: the cute, the interesting, and the zany.” I love how seriously Ngai takes these topics and how much she unpacks from them. Here’s more on cuteness: “The asymmetry of power that cuteness revolves around is another compelling reminder of how aesthetic categories register social conflict. There can be no experience of any person or object as cute that does not somehow call up the subject’s sense of power over those who are less powerful. But, as Lori Merish underscores, the fact that the cute object seems capable of making an affective demand on the subject—a demand for care that the subject is culturally as well as biologically compelled to fulfill—is already a sign that “cute” does not just denote a static power differential, but rather a dynamic and complex power struggle.”
Reading this makes me think that in making cute comics I’m doing something really important. But if I wasn’t feeling rebellious against the idea of importance – preferring the trivial, the silly and the stupid — there wouldn’t be much fun in it. It’s all very paradoxical in my mind when I think about it.
Q: Rebellion against importance sounds like a pretty good agenda. However, you come from a comparatively “important” high culture background, and your ostensibly low brow comic isn’t totally immune to its influence. For instance, the main threat in most of Ball and Cone’s scarier adventures is simply being seen, with multiple panels and story arcs revolving around being pursued, spotted and spied upon; the idea of gazing as an act of aggression is an obsession for lots of fine artists, photographers and filmmakers. Do you sense yourself importing ideas from other disciplines?
A: The ideas animating Ball and Cone that interest me most come less out of art than out of philosophy, in which seeing is a huge topic. The relationship between what we see – or, what we think we see – and what mind-independent reality might be like has been endlessly pondered by thinkers from Descarte to Derrida and beyond. For Aristotle, a basic feature of human consciousness is a capacity for wonder and a drive to understand, which we satisfy much of the time by looking at the world and, metaphorically, looking inward. Most of the time, it seems to me, Ball and Cone are looking as if they’re just wondering what is going on in any given situation. They just want to understand. The gazes of the black Ball and Cone may seem possibly menacing, but it’s hardly ever clear that they pose any kind of real threat. But the dynamics of looking, seeing and being seen do have to do with power, as the seer usually has, at least momentarily, the advantage over the seen. So there is a certain political dimension that probably relates to voyeurism as a feature of modern life at least as reflected in photography and movies.
Another kind of seeing involves not optical perception but an ability to “see past” or “through” surface reality as registered by our senses. That’s just something that cognitive intelligence does. Sometimes it’s called insight. You “see” some underlying pattern that is invisible to ordinary vision. Often the same thing may be seen in different ways, and seeing something one way may preclude seeing it another way. That’s what the duck-rabbit figure is about, a favorite topic for Wittgenstein. When seeing from a singular perspective meets an apparently ambiguous reality that seems to change depending on how it is seen: that’s a moment I think I’m always hoping Ball and Cone will encounter, wonder about and try to understand by looking. It’s a moment when the nature of mind comes at least hazily into view. You have to look in order to see. Then you see your own seeing.
Then there’s the possibility of being able to see through reality as delivered by our senses to a metaphysical or transcendental reality that has no material being but exists nevertheless in some world-determining way. Nothing I’ve experienced in my life convinces me that such a realm exists, but I’ve always loved the fantasy of it. It’s a fantasy that urges a kind of mental adventuring, because as Hegel writes, whatever might be there to be seen will ever exist only be virtue of someone going there to see it:
“It is manifest that behind the so-called curtain which is supposed to conceal the inner world, there is nothing to be seen unless WE go behind it ourselves, as much in order that we may SEE as that there may be something behind there to be seen.”
I think that’s why windows and windows within windows — as well as doorways and other openings in the fabric of the picture — figure so often in Ball and Cone.
Q: One final question: everyone knows that young artists are probably just going to starve, so do you have any advice for young philosophers?
A: I love philosophy but I’m not a professional philosopher, so I wouldn’t know what kind of career advice to give a young philosopher other than, in the immortal words of Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss.” The best advice I ever heard from a real philosopher about reading philosophy was from my friend Nick Pappas, a professor at CUNY. I mentioned in an email that I’d been dipping into Hegel and Heidegger and finding their writings strangely repetitious and opaque yet somehow hair-raising. I wrote, “Were those guys on drugs or something? They sound like stoners to me,” to which Nick replied, “H. and H. both have the stoner’s obsessive attention to — well, to everything. And one thing I try to learn from them but especially from Heidegger and the best Heideggerians who came after him: not to be in a hurry. Let other writings get to the point. Philosophy is on its own clock.” I love that. We are obliged to obey hurrying clocks all the time. In art and philosophy, we can enter other, less utilitarian time zones. What, after all, is the rush?