“Social stratification always looms over Ben Tolman’s obsessively detailed cityscapes, but life at the bottom turns even more threatening in his newest drawings. The D.C. artist’s Gallery Neptune & Brown show, “Weltschmerz,” features ominous vignettes such as “Purple People Eater,” in which a large-mouthed beast awaits those unfortunate enough to happen upon it, one level below the street. Its maw may be an allegorical representation of “Weltschmerz,” a German phrase that literally means “world pain.”
Anyone who saw Tolman’s 2015 Flashpoint show will notice a new element. Although the drawings are still primarily black and white, some include colorful accents. “Entrance” features a multihued mound of what could be lava or protoplasm, but the others incorporate just one color, most often red: the railings and guide ropes that direct crowds in “Path” and “Queue” and, more subtly, the tiny flag a guide uses to lead people through a half-demolished neighborhood in “Tour.” You can guess the color of the spatter and pooled, brackish runoff in “Purple People Eater.”
Tolman’s themes include regimentation, commercialism and the clash of the subcultures that cities pack into relatively small areas. In “Market,” trash and graffiti on the lower floors yield to sleek facades and corporate logos higher up. That picture is one of several in which the composition cuts off below the top. Another is “Forward,” in which scores of people climb stairs that lead to — what? Is there something great above, or just another staircase that leads back down?
Tolman, who works intuitively, probably doesn’t know the answer himself. But his art captures the promise of the urban experience, in which amazement might await around the next corner. The surprise may not be pleasant, but it appears that Tolman — a Wheaton native — prefers the urban enigma to suburban certainty.”
Weltschmerz: Recent Drawings by Ben Tolman On view through Feb. 25 at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW. 202-986-1200. galleryneptunebrown.com.