The ugly truth: Civilized drags society’s dark side into the light

March 19, 2015

Tucked away on G Street stands Flashpoint Gallery, an art exhibition space that exemplifies the essence of bare-bones minimalism. Uneven concrete floors, metallic bars and wires and bright, powerful lights that shine their artificial glow on the exhibit pieces are all that make up a room the size of an ICC classroom.

Somehow, this rough, jagged space provides the perfect complement for Ben Tolman’s latest collection of works, Civilized. Composed of only a handful of extremely detailed and thought-provoking drawings, this exhibit is a statement about the gloomier, more horrific traits that define the urban landscapes of the world—things we all know yet refuse to admit.

Describing his work, Ben Tolman states, “The spaces we build limit us as well as offer us possibilities.” This statement is deceiving at first glance, since many of his images are simple cityscapes made with basic geometric shapes.

But within these works lurks a darker reality that, just like in the city today, is hidden to those who choose not to look. Homeless men sleep on cardboard behind a city building, women flash masturbating men their breasts in an alley, and people are held at knifepoint in a sewer where gigantic cockroaches live.

These are the mysterious evils that exist in all cities deep under their glittery and idyllic veneer; Tulman simply brings these uncomfortable truths to the forefront of his drawings.

Strangely enough, however, he adds these truths with a hint of sickening humor. In one piece titled “Now,” Furries, people who wear animal costumes as a fetish, have a party on a building roof right next to a Starbucks filled with regular customers. In another piece, “Urban,” men and women go about their day while naked, unsurprised by their lack of clothes.

Graffiti images of penises and S.O.S. signals on the tops of dilapidated houses are adjacent to billboards warning the public to “FEAR GOD.”

In this new dystopia, we see the satire and social criticism of today and can only awkwardly laugh as a result, it shows us the true weight of society’s flaws and our inability to face and accept them as actual blemishes in our communities.

However, not all of the social commentary in this artwork contains strange, slightly-tinged fantasy; in a suburban landscape, bulldozers tear down an old building on the outskirts of the town. In another, a landfill as tall as a small mountain towers over a line of people waiting to throw more trash on it.

In these works, his utilization of simple, realistic imagery with less detail than his other drawings portray environmental issues that the world universally accepts, but is reluctant to deal with.

After these two works is an image of an empty city block with crumbling edifices and chunks of granite tossed haphazardly on the street. Taken as a whole, they show a new world that could have been taken from a science fiction movie, but also prove to us that this could be our own reality soon—a truly frightening thought.

That is the real gift of Civilized: its black and white drawings give not just a meaning but a powerful and explicit warning. Ben Tulman’s flair for imagination, combined with his sense of both large and small perspectives, give his audience a taste of true city street life from  the viewpoint of the homeless man to the outlook of the community and even the perspective of a cockroach.

All the pieces give a voice and meaning to the otherwise mute and hollow facets of urban life, obliging us to wonder: are we truly civilized?

Flashpoint Gallery

916 G St NW

On display until Mar. 28

Wed. – Sat. 12 – 6 p.m.


Photo: Flashpoint Gallery

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