Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Artist Ben Tolman creates incredibly intricate drawings that dig for the heart beneath the hard edges of the built environment.
Ben Tolman doesn't hate the suburbs. Not exactly. He's finally come to terms with the place where he grew up. It took him six months.
That's how long Tolman, an artist from Washington, D.C., spent drawing his monumental exegesis, Suburbs, in 2012. More than six feel tall and four feet wide, Suburbs is Tolman's interpretation of the Wheaton, Maryland, community he called his home as a kid. Composing the drawing took six months: five days a week, 14 hours each day, just ink and paper and repetition.
Suburbs was born out of a difficult time, the artist says. "That [drawing] came out of my dad dying, and my mom moving back to where she grew up. They sold the house I grew up in," Tolman says. "That got me thinking about my experience growing up."
Since then, Tolman has focused on the built environment—cities and suburbs, real and imagined, and the effects that they have, for better or for worse, on the people who inhabit them.
"Ben Tolman: Civilized," a show of the artist's drawings (and sculpture), opens at D.C.'s Flashpoint Gallery today. To call his ink-on-paper drawings detailed would be a ridiculous understatement: Tolman's work'd make Hieronymus Bosch blush. His worlds are both hyperrealistic and wholly fabricated, constructions that draw from illustrators like R. Crumb and draftsmen such as Albrecht Dürer in equal measure.
"I didn’t want it to be specific place," Tolman says, referring to City, an ink cityscape on the same scale as Suburbs. The same goes for Urban, the artist's vision of a skyscraper with the building's wall stripped away, baring all its inhabitants and interior goings-on. "I wanted it to be more of a generic American city—more of an East Coast city."
Tolman dwells on the details: Many of his works are composite images, drawn from different photographs of specific buildings or sites. There's no Wheaton neighborhood that looks as hopelessly homogenous as the one Tolman built in Suburbs, for example, but the houses themselves are all faithful depictions. He inked each of the buildings based on photographs of the houses surrounding his own former home.
"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 tells me, in a phone interview. Most of the homes have accrued small additions, including his childhood home, a template house that barely contained the artist and his three brothers growing up.
If Tolman's representation of Wheaton seems unsparing, that may be a reflection of his feelings about the suburbs, his home, and his childhood. "Dad was 100 percent religion—no interest in culture," Tolman says, reflecting on the additions that his father built on his home. A Mormon looms in the foreground. "He was completely about function. He had no interest in form. He thought art was useless."
Tolman cites a handful of artists as influences on his "Civilization" series. Irving Norman, the Lithuanian-born California painter, is one. So is London's Paul Noble. (Chris Ware's soaring,despairing, genre-busting Building Stories might be kin to Tolman's project. And if he hadn't been raised in the Mormon faith, I would've guessed that he was at some point a Calvinist.)
Philadelphia is another touchstone for his drawings—although he goes to lengths to anonymize his city scenes. The protesters in Some are facing away from the artist; it's impossible to tell what's bothering them. Samo depicts a parade, but not one that you'd ever expect to see on a holiday.
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.
Even Suburbs has a kind of elegant, noble, stoic thing going on. A serenity.
"I feel a certain nostalgia for it," Tolman says, "but I also hated the suburbs. I still hate the suburbs."