The hyper-detailed ink-on-paper drawings by Ben Tolman depict the built environment and the effects it has on the people who inhabit it.
Cities (City, 2013) and suburbs (Suburbs, 2012), skyscrapers stripped off of their outer walls (Urban, 2015) or rows of one-bedroom houses, fictional or real, the subjects of the Washington DC-based artist gravitate around social and economical rituals and the patterns of common public/private relations.
Whereas the detailing, worth of a Hyeronimus Bosch’s painting, a Irving Norman‘s or a Paul Noble drawing, suggests otherwise, Tolman works are, at least on the surface, completely fabricated. Yet his suburban neighborhoods or urban scenarios are faithful depictions of a generic American territory: many of his large scenes come from a montage of composite images, photographs of real buildings and sites, such as his former home. This way, Tolman works takes on a interesting biographical and even nostalgic character. “The whole neighborhood are these one-bedroom, really tiny starter homes that were built for returning World War 2 soldiers. Seventy years later, everything is exactly the same,” Tolman told writer Kriston Capps for a wonderful article on CityLab.com
“That [drawing] [Suburbs] came out of my dad dying, and my mom moving back to where she grew up. They sold the house I grew up in“. The artist’s merciless drawings, Capps argues, could have an origin from his own unsparing childhood and his thoughts about the physical and personal environment he used to live in: “Dad was 100 percent religion—no interest in culture,” Tolman affirms, about the additions that his father built on his home, following a common process many houses in the neighborhood were subjected” He was completely about function. He had no interest in form. He thought art was useless.”
To quote again Kriston Capps:
Sturm und drang takes physical form in Tolman’s drawings. They are violent and tragic. Cities and skyscrapers represent a kind of mortification of the flesh. Tolman draws cities as hierarchical, rising from the filth at their base to gleaming penthouse pinnacles in the sky. The suburbs, by comparison, are soul-crushing in a different way. Nothing happens. Throughout, his works are darkly comic—fine, touching moments rendered in fine ink lines can be found everywhere, when you look closely. In that sense, the drawings are very human.
Further reading and images via:
“An Artist’s Dark But Loving Graphic Ode to Suburbia“, by Kriston Capps at citylab.com
All images © Ben Tolman