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Ben Tolman The underbelly of modernity

Like Bruegel in the 16th century, the longer you look at Ben Tolman's art the more you start to see.

Characters appear like stars in the night sky and every one of them looks like they have their own story to tell. Take your time as you peruse these peopled labyrinths and try not to get lost as you do.

Forward

'Forward'

Your work is meticulous, with more scenes and characters revealing themselves the longer you look. Do you plan the pieces out beforehand or improvise as you go along?

Sometimes I will have a general theme or composition in mind, but usually the majority of the drawing is made up as I go. I never sketch the whole drawing out first.

I think about creativity often and how it works. For me the best ideas come as a result of creative problem solving while working. Every day when I come to the studio I have to solve a puzzle relating to building off of whatever I did the previous day. If I had planned it out first, every day would just be filling in a sketch and I would get bored really fast.

Tower

'Tower'

To me your art is Kafkaesque. Do you intend your work to be considered as socially or politically engaged or is it more of a personal expression?

I love Kafka, especially The Trial and The Castle. The insane maze of bureaucracy, rules that have no function - that really interests me. The environments in my drawings usually trap or restrict the inhabitants. It is usually a social critique in some way, not offering any kind of solution, just kind of pointing at things that seem off to me.

Entrance300dpi

'Entrance'

What draws you towards the urban landscape as a recurring theme?

The drawings usually come from my own personal experience and the urban landscape is my environment. The buildings will look American when I am home and I will use the local buildings if I'm drawing when I am travelling. If I put graffiti on the buildings in the drawing it will come directly from the walls wherever I happen to be.

I also just find cities and the way they function (or don't) really fascinating. It's so complex. All extremes exist together and it never stops. It's always slowly transforming itself. As a person you're just kind of stuck in this place you have no control over, especially if you don't have economic resources, and you have to find some way to navigate it.

March Of Death

'March of Death'

Who or what influences you and your work?

The biggest influence is just real life. I love art and spend a lot of time looking at art, but I can't really point to specific art that influences what I do.

When I was younger other artists, especially ones more on the outside of the art world with socially engaged work, did have a big effect on me, like Irving Norman. Now I'm more influenced by things outside of art. Literature is one example. I mentioned Kafka earlier. I love Haruki Murakami's books. I love the way his books will be firmly based in reality but then have some bizarre surreal element. It's not enough to just point out social problems. It needs to be wrapped in a kind of poetry.

Temptations300dpi

'Temptations'

What's next for you? Anything in the near future we should look out for?

Right now I'm working on my next solo show, which will be in Paris at Galerie LJ opening 25 April. Last year I moved to Pittsburgh, PA and acquired an old Catholic school and rectory. My big project for the future is turning the school into an art centre. I named it Fiasco.

Nature

'Nature'

My art has been pretty bleak for awhile, pointing out things in the world that seem off to me. But pointing out problems is easy; helping make something better is hard.

What I want to do now is build the world I want to live in, in this small space I control, and use it to help where I can.

Next article in issue 143

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