In its final days hanging at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Ave, I went to see the new Roger Ballen series, Boarding House. Roger Ballen and the upper east side seem incongruous to begin with, but the Gagosian Gallery, high ceilinged and nestled comfortably amongst Gucci and Oscar de la Renta storefronts, makes the disparity glaring.
The photos, a fluid continuation of Ballen's assiduously swarthy prints depicting almost fantastical menageries of people, animals and baren, dirty rooms, are all from a squat which he formally dubs the Boarding House. While the collection builds on his previous series in its aesthetic and subject matter (marginalized South Africans are a Ballen specialty) it also continues to foment the sculptural, almost architectural, compositions that started to come out in previous works like Outland and Shadow Chamber. Here, people are as present as ever in the photos, though their presence is less straightforward than in the past. We see hands cut off by the frame, disjointed mouths, feet. Compositions include body parts with the same tenderness that they include the faces painted on the walls, dirty mattress profiles and wire hangers arranged like curtains. On Nov. 9, speaking at SVA in Manhattan, Ballen conceded, without giving much detail, that the recent photographs are more of a collaboration with those he photographed than any of his previous work. He also coceded, with some excitement, that he is moving more and more into the realm of what he called art, as compared to the more grounded documentary tradition with which he could be associated. The images convey a fractured theatricality, timeless, placeless and ephemeral.
Yet, despite the fictionalized. the images contain the facts as well; Ballen is photographing in a marginalized, poor, and depressed place. That's what makes the 7-ply mat board on the prints and spacious grey walls seem at odds with the photos that they are showcasing. But where else show it, I suppose? On the walls of the squat where they were shot? It's theater to the nth degree regardless.