Roger Ballen: Boarding House @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 42 black and white images, framed in black and matted, and hung against dark grey walls in a series of 6 galleries and hallway spaces. The images were taken between 2002 and 2008. The prints come in two sizes: approximately 20×20 gelatin silver prints (in editions of 10) and larger 32×32 digital inkjet exhibition prints (in editions of 10 as well). The show includes 28 prints in the smaller size and 14 prints in the larger size. A monograph of this work has recently been published by Phaidon (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: I remember very clearly the first time I saw Roger Ballen’s photographs: it was in 2004, at a show at the Berkeley Art Museum. Hung against the museum’s rough concrete walls, the pared down, bizarre and unsettling pictures were unlike anything I had seen before. What stood out was their startling, almost confrontational originality; while we might have been able to connect them tangentially to Arbus or Witkin or any number of others, this was an artist who had found his own voice and clearly wasn’t afraid to make work that didn’t fit into neat categories.
Fast forward five years to the new show on view now at Gagosian and we find Ballen still out on the fringes, exploring his own world, but having delved even deeper into his own psychological landscape. Taken in a Johannesburg warehouse filled with a warren of crude living spaces, the images are less about figures and “portraits” than his earlier work; the inhabitants (and co-conspirators) are seen only fleetingly in these pictures: fingers protruding from a sackcloth wall, open mouths laughing through holes, hands waving above a barrier or resting on a grimy mattress, dirty arms or legs dangling into the frame. Instead, it is the spooky environment itself and its layers of meanings that have become the focal point.
Ballen seems to have “turned up the volume” in these pictures, making images that are much more complex and visually dense than his previous work. The staged scenes and settings contain a wide array of oddly symbolic items and abandoned debris: dolls, rabbits, squiggly wire, pillows, newspaper, chicken heads, butterflies, feather dusters, spiders, mattresses, stuffed animals, electrical cords, snakes, fake plants, dead rats, and even a zebra skin and a hog’s head. It is however the wild drawings that cover the burlap, concrete and plywood walls that are the most tantalizing and memorable: stylized faces, heads, and simple bodies, executed in charcoal, chalk, and spray paint, winding around in surreal patterns and haunted scribbles. Taken together, each image becomes an elaborate still life installation in muted grey; layered sculptural elements form a backdrop for the hidden people and the dark metaphorical corners of their lives.
While many of the works evoke an initial shock, quite a few find their way toward dark, black humor rather than disturbing scary nightmare; there is a fine balance at work that mixes humanity with anxious revulsion, not-so-funny jokes with unsettling and uneasy voyeurism. The consistency with which Ballen knocks the viewer out of his/her comfort zone while still finding quiet moments of tenderness is what makes this exhibit so evocative and successful.
Simply put, this is the single best show of new photography I have seen this entire year. It is amazingly original, emotionally draining, expertly crafted, and not to be missed.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced based on size. The 20×20 prints are $7500 and the larger 32×32 exhibition prints are $11000; both prices include the frame. Ballen’s work has been only intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past few years; prices have ranged between $2000 and $25000, for prints often made in editions of 35.
While Ballen’s work doesn’t fit well with our collecting parameters, I particularly enjoyed Chuckles, 2007 (open mouths and chicken heads), Celebration, 2007 (chalk covered hands and the hog’s head), and Boarding House, 2008 (drawings on boards, stuffed animals, a doll’s head, a dog, and a child).
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Interviews: Lens Culture (here), American Photo (here), Dossier (here)
  • Book reviews: The Photobook (here), Conscientious (here)
Roger Ballen: Boarding House
Through December 23rd
Gagosian Gallery
980 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10075

Read more about: Roger Ballen, Gagosian Gallery


  1. Chris /

    Thanks, for the link Gabriel.

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