Ben Tolman feels your pain. So suggests the title of his latest solo show Weltschmerz, now on view at gallery neptune and brown in the District’s Logan Circle neighborhood. Weltschmerz translates from German as “world pain” and reflects his expanding awareness of the world writ large gained through a recent art residency and travel in Germany and Bosnia. Yet Tolman doesn’t wallow in misery. Rather, he channels this sense of ennui into urban landscapes so fantastically detailed that the weariness becomes farcical in nature.
Elements of Tolman’s previous work are on full display in this suite of drawings (mostly dated 2016 or 2017) down to the obsessively minute details of individual costumes in Path or shadowed bricks in Market. But where prior work focuses on the foibles and minutiae of human life, such as Now and More produced in 2014, many of the drawings on display here focus the attention on the urban landscape. The complex cityscape in Pyramid (2016) is completely devoid of its citizenry, channeling our attention to the banal architecture. Here Tolman presents an ersatz ziggurat that combines Brazilian favelas, Greek temples and the New York subway; the viewer is literally everywhere at once and nowhere at all. Market (2017) continues this trend, where border-crossing brand names overpower market stalls and the refuse of life slowly builds, threatening to overtake us all. This sense of ominous overtaking is also apparent in Entrance (2016) and Quietly (2016), two works that introduce new, alien architectural forms that ooze over the landscape.
Weariness tinged with menace is more overtly felt in drawings focusing our attention on the way architecture channels our human instincts. Tolman surely had airports in mind when creating Queue (2016). How else to explain the TSA-approved red rope lines that repay our patience with–you guessed it–more lines stretching to infinity. Path (2016) continues this trend with blank-faced individuals walking to and fro in a never ending cycle of wash, rinse and repeat. Forward (2017) strikes a slightly more ominous tone, with a single file of citizenry climbing a rickety, open structure that stretches to the heavens, suggesting attempts to reach enlightenment or, in a morose alternative, lemmings headed towards a cliff.
Two works in particular deftly combine these architectural elements and human foibles, providing a caustic commentary on ways in which culture plods relentlessly forth. Purple People Eater (2016) displays a vertically designed architectural scene similar to the grittier Market. Here the citizenry seem blissfully ignorant of the alien life form in their midst, even as the spawn of this being encroaches upon the landscape at the bottom of the image. Even more oblivious are the tourists posing for photos in Tour (2017), using the carcasses of bombed-out buildings as vacation backdrops. Both images point out the myriad of ways in which a society may choose to willfully ignore the “inconveniences” caused by civil and ecological conflict. In doing so, Tolman seems to indicate that we risk losing part of our own humanity in the process.
Perhaps it is the world we inhabit today, but this new work presents a more bleak outlook on life than Tolman’s exhibited in past shows, such as 2015’s Civilized at Flashpoint Gallery. It is hard not to create a political subtext in the mind’s eye, though Tolman purposefully eschews labels, words or actions to tie his imagery to a particular locale or culture. As media and transportation options continue to shrink the distance between us at ever-increasing rates, the effort required to strip away our common humanity borders on the absurd. Tolman’s exactitude channels this absurdity, morphing psychic pain into irony with every ink line. In his skilled hands humor not only charms the eye, but becomes a moral weapon in advancing notions of our shared humanity.
Weltschmerz runs through February 25, 2017 at gallery neptune & brown. For gallery hours and directions, visit their website here.
Banner image: Tour (detail)