Roger Ballen at African Art
Ambivalent is the word I would use to describe Roger Ballen talking about his art, which is appropriate as there is an ambivalence to his work as well. Mr. Ballen, who was born in New York but has lived in South Africa for over 30 years has an interesting accent, at times resonant with the bass tones of New York, then mixed with that charming melange of lost Dutchman at high tea after 30 years in the bush that is the South Africa iteration. In town in conjunction with the opening of his show, Line, Marks & Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen – which I think is pretty ballsy for the Smithsonian and a DC public institution, personally, dare I even say SERIOUSLY AMAZING – and I hope those ant-Christ people don’t get all over their congressmen for this. All I have to say is stand down piss-ant-Christ people, these are some beautiful prints.
The film versus digital debate was alive and well. In the galleries, my own informal poll, including my personal opinion, AND that of another couple I was eavesdropping upon, revealed that the silver gelatin prints were preferred, both in tonality, sharpness without the over crispness of the inkjet. The inkjet just looked crunchy next to the silver gelatin, I am sorry, but that is how I feel. Anyhoo, that said – it was pretty darn impressive. I mean the conceit of the line as a theme to the show was a bit obvious and ordinary. I would have preferred some more psycho dynamic structure – Mr. Ballen asserted that he was one of a dying breed aka film photographers, and I had to agree and felt very sad and lonely as a younger member of that dying breed and film becoming so precious. And I just hate the digital process I am sorry. I miss the darkroom. I am still fighting it, I admit.
Of film, Ballen asserted, ” The nice thing is you don’t know what happens to it, till you make a print of it.” Sensing a rapt audience, he continued, ” The film has it’s own life, it’s own chemistry, it’s own being.” And then he finished with, ” It can give you a life that you haven’t given it.”
He says his new work is a leap to an extended reality, and that the line tells you who you are so let’s start there, and then proceeds to riff on the line, molding it into the idea that it is some Odyssean journey of the unconscious, only he doesn’t say it quite like that, and he says it rather much longer. The drawings to me are like his version of outsider art – he doesn’t really describe his relationships to his subjects and the collaborative quality of their encounter, and I do not ask (Impulse Control Success Story!) him if he just brings like a gallon of whiskey there to these locations and they all hang out and see what happens, because I am pretty sure that is what happens. He appears a pretty closed book about the engagements he has with his subjects.
Speaking of books, it’s a quite lovely volume with excellent duotones, highly recommended.