An atmosphere of psychic, if not physical brutality pervades Roger Ballen’s photographic tableaux. Every surface is soiled or scrawled upon; bodies are deprived of integrity and wholeness; rats tread freely among children. Ballen operates as a stage director: he creates a spare set with drawn, sculpted, and found props; he populates this convincingly raw realm with characters in shabby costume; most crucially, he establishes mood, typically an acid raincloud of disquiet, anxiety, threat. The pictures are as engrossing as they are unnerving.
Ballenesque, a thorough, retrospective volume of the New York-born, South Africa-based artist’s work has just been published by Thames & Hudson. This show, on view through June 16, responds to that occasion and adopts the same title, but doesn’t aim to replicate its comprehensiveness. Instead, a small selection of early pictures from the late ’60s and ’70s is paired with 40 pieces made since 2000. The ’80s and ’90s, decades in which Ballen made his most ethically problematic work, staged portraits of the dispossessed, are all but skipped over.
However incomplete a survey, the show’s bookend structure does illustrate the broad aesthetic span that Ballen has covered in 50 years – his fundamental shift in orientation from external to internal worlds, from street documents to garret fictions, from family-of-man-friendly humanism to constructed-for-the-camera psychodrama grimness.
Innocence doesn’t stand a chance in these amoral parables. Damage and disjunction reign. Heads rarely appear soundly connected to shoulders but are masked, hooded, hidden, replaced by animals – dead and alive – and cracked dolls. Ballen presents each scene frontally, tightly framed within shallow space, in grimy monochrome. Mildly claustrophobic, and dense with visual and emotional complexity, they are impeccably composed.
Ballen is especially adroit with line. It threads through his pictures, sometimes leading, sometimes dodging traffic, a force with momentum, at once palpable and metaphoric. In several images, line-drawn figures on rear walls define brash, ghostly choruses, witnesses to the action downstage. In Unwind (2013), a wall-mounted film spool unfurls its glossy ribbon onto a bed below, through its shirtless occupant’s arm, into a metal basket holding a dove, and back up to rest in a loopy tangle in the man’s hands, as if the line traced his own sinuous mess of a narrative. In Introspection (2001), an agitated coil of concertina wire doubles as the thought bubble of an older man whose head rests on a pillow of bricks.
Sound, when evoked, verges on the primal, the animal – Roar (2002) and Squawk (2005), for instance, and even the early Yelp (1977). Whether Ballen’s pictures read as archetypal propositions or hallucinatory fever dreams, they endure, stubborn as stains.