Ben Tolman is an architect. He fashions his world like a blueprint, imagining where innovative structures can coexist in harmony sustained by the simplicity of an imagined citizenry. In years past, Tolman’s works were more directly figurative, populated by buildings floating in an ethereal space. For Unmode, his new solo show with Thinkspace Projects in Los Angeles, he turns both surreal and scientific, gauging the scaffolding of life and, perhaps more importantly, the building blocks of his own life.
Evan Pricco: I was reading your statement about the new show, where you explained that this exhibition at Thinkspace would unfold a “simple to complex transition.” You explained how nature creates us as a simple hydrogen atom and then builds and builds with more complex elements. So where do you even start portraying that transition when it comes to art?
Ben Tolman: I got to the place where I felt done with the artwork I had been making for a while and wanted to start something completely new and I wanted to make something more freely creative than my past work. So I started thinking more about creativity and how it works. Nature is the most creative thing I can think of. And it builds all this complexity of life in all its forms without even having intention, just trying out every possibility, building on whatever works best. I took that as my inspiration and have been building my new work from the starting point of simple shapes and patterns. I’ve now made about 600 small square drawings, starting with basic shapes and contrasting background patterns. I followed whatever seemed more interesting. Each drawing builds on the previous one. Through tweaking and combining things, I have built it out into a world that I could not have come up with otherwise. But I’m not rigid about the process, and at a certain point, I just follow whatever ideas seem the most interesting at the time while I just try to be in the moment with the drawing.
What is your relationship with surrealism and psychedelic art? Does either interest you at all?
The thing that is the most interesting to me is creativity, and I am very interested in boundary states, so my Venn diagram intersects pretty heavily with those two. But I don’t like to make work based on any one set of ideas. The space between the real world and the world of ideas is very interesting to me. Even with my architecture-based drawings, I never wanted them to feel like a real place, I would always put in elements to intentionally break the illusion of reality. In my new work, I want to explore the creative domains more freely. As far as psychedelics, I think using them is a basic human right. In my opinion, it’s the most interesting, deep, and mysterious experience a human can have. How to bring that back into art is not something I have solved, but maybe it just seeps in on its own. The creativity available in that state is like magic. It does not seem like it should be possible!
In your past work, you were almost looking at things in an architectural way, building these stacked cityscapes with precision. Does this show sort of open up new potential for you, and, if so, what made you shift? I see those foundations here, but there is still a new way of approaching architecture in the new works.
Like a lot of people, I guess I got to a bit of a dark place around 2020. The world seemed to be getting increasingly stupider and stupider. Many of my drawings had been a little bleak already, sort of pointing to things I think are fucked up or stupid in the world. While covid and all the stupid Trump shit was happening I was making a drawing with all these racists, dumb shit, death, and it was taking me, psychologically, to a dark place… That drawing just felt like the end of something. I lost interest in paying attention to those problems, and now I want to just freely follow my creativity and see where it leads me.
What does the pen do for you? You don’t use brushes, right?
I changed the imagery I’m working with and the approach, but so far I’ve stuck with ink. I love working under the constraints of black-and-white drawing. By this point, it’s like a good friend who’s always been with me, but I think that might be on the way out soon too. I also make art in many ways that I don’t show publicly and I feel like those ways of working are starting to blend together. For me now, it’s just about playing, following a thread of creativity, and seeing where it leads.
As a viewer going into Unmode, what do you want to take out of it?
I called the show Unmode because for me the show was about breaking out of my habits and doing things a different way, following creativity where it leads.
The first part of the show is the hundreds of drawings I made to develop this new space for me to work and the second part of the show is taking what I learned from that, developing and reimagining it into a new creative space for me to play in. So how I made the work is very directly on display. It’s really just a celebration of creativity and maybe it will get people to think about their own creative processes in different ways. Also, I am going to release all the work in the show to the creative commons so other people can also freely play and develop in this world if they find that interesting.
I wanted to talk a little bit about Pittsburgh, where you now live, and how that city influences you. It’s a city that has been reimagined a lot in the last quarter century, and I wonder if rebuilding the vision of a city plays at all into what you do.
I’m new to Pittsburgh, but it’s a type of East Coast industrial city that I am very familiar with. It’s not as far along in the redevelopment process as other East Coast cities. Some of it is good, and much of it is bad. Many of my drawings were about this topic, so it’s really interesting to me. My hometown, DC, was completely redeveloped and now it feels totally soulless. Much of its arts and culture had to leave. Pittsburgh is a beautiful city with great people and it is still in a transitional place with the potential of vibrant, from the ground up, culture. That’s why I came to Pittsburgh. I bought an old Catholic school and rectory with my wife with the intention of converting it into an art center. Not as a business opportunity but as a permanent place in Pittsburgh for culture, always steered by the artist community who uses it.
The Fiasco Art Center in Pittsburgh. Give me the rundown. What are you doing there, what was the genesis and what do you want to make happen in the city?
To me, culture is made by communities. Culture is something participated in, not bought and sold. Culture is a collaboration, not a competition. And it seems like there are fewer and fewer spaces both for culture and for the community. With my wife and friends, I am experimenting with how to make the best space for artists and their communities. It’s a 6000-square-foot house and a 24,000-square-foot school, so there is space to experiment with anything. We want to cover everything with art. Eventually, I want to have a residency program with all the normal art facilities—ceramics, print shop, wood and metal shops, studios, gallery, etc. I want to eventually make it permanent and give it to the artists who use it. But for now, it’s also where I live with my friends, artists, and musicians. We are building it out a bit organically over time, as we also build culture and community, trying to find the balance between chaos and order!
What’s next for Ben Tolman, what is your dream project, and how close are you to doing it?
Building an art center, and the possibilities of what an art center can be, have always fascinated me as an idea. That’s a big one in the works at the moment, and it also allows for a lot of interesting side projects. I’m really interested in collaborative projects. I want to build really big things with a community of creative people! Who wants to help?
I’m really into the idea of decentralization and people controlling the networks they participate in. We don’t want to make the art center a non-profit, we want to make it a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) and over time release control of it to the community. But I have an idea to take this one step further. I want to build the art center into an exponentially expanding network of art centers all controlled by the artists, which would not have been possible before the DAO system. The idea is that the art center I am making now will have part of its funds saved within a timeframe of, say twenty years, and build two more art centers. Those would each over time make two more. The network of art centers would help each other, enabling all the art centers to become and remain stable.
Ben Tolman’s solo show at Thinkspace Projects will be on view December 3, 2022—December 31, 2022