The Aggressively Uncategorizable — Roger Ballen: A Retrospective

at Fahey/Klein Gallery (through June 16, 2018)
Reviewed by Shana Nys Dambrot

Sometimes an artist’s style is so aggressively uncategorizable, so interdisciplinary and outside conventions, that it defies not only genre, but any meaningful comparisons to history or peer — and their name simply becomes its own adjective. Meet US/South African artist Roger Ballen, whose sui generis style of photography-based practices has been dubbed Ballenesque, because there’s literally no better way to describe it. Of course, in this case, Ballen himself began referring to his own work that way fairly early on, in the 1990s, and honestly he has a point.

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Artist (courtesy of Fahey/Klein)

As this deft survey (mirroring the structure of a newly-released monographic book of the same name) demonstrates, Ballen’s early work evinced a clear debt to the conventions of journalistic and documentary photography. Though his compositions were at that time often subtly manipulated, the light-touch surrealism he achieved was through the operative juxtapositions of compositional and technical adherence to paradigmatic norms of documentary photography along with the small twists he introduced into the imagery. Dead cats, street graffiti, urban decay, nudists.

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