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Wish You Were Here: Ben Tollefson Brings Colorful Surrealist Canvases to Iridian Gallery

Savannah artist Tollefson brings his art to Richmond with a solo exhibition at Diversity Richmond's Iridian Gallery.

Ash Griffith | April 10, 2018

Savannah, GA-based artist Ben Tollefson might actually be this generation’s Salvador Dali. With his penchant for bright colors and surrealist visuals, Tollefson has a unique, untouchable style all his own that can’t help but stand out. And it is that fondness for creating surreal, synthetic worlds that is bringing him to Diversity Richmond’s Iridian Gallery on April 13th with a solo exhibition entitled Wish You Were Here.

Originally from New Jersey, Tollefson moved to Savannah to work on his MFA at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), honing his style as he began to focus on painting space versus reality, and playing around with what is real in a painted image. Currently his inspiration derives from multitudes of places including collages, fashion magazines, and even old movie sets.

“I think a lot about paintings as backdrops,” Tollefson said. “Lately I’ve been looking at a lot of painted backdrops on old movie sets. Like [in the] ‘30s and 40s, when they used to spend hours and hours painting these sets to make it look as real as possible, and it’s really just a flat image. I find those really fascinating.”

Tollefson is no stranger to the world of pop culture he nods at in his work with bright, happy visuals such as his 2014 installation, Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain and his 2016 piece, “Mariah (Fantasy).” The title of Wish You Were Here is not intended to reference the beloved 1975 album by Pink Floyd, but he is okay with the coincidence. In truth, the title is a completely different reference. “It’s just a ubiquitous thing [people write] on postcards,” he said. “[It] has a sentimentality, but it’s also so common that it is maybe not as sincere. So there was kind of a tension between a sincerity and a longing, but also that sort of insincerity.”

While he says it isn’t always a direct influence for his work, Tollefson does admit that his love for his current home is greater than his previous residence in DC. With consistent beautiful weather, and an almost cinematic backdrop surrounding you, it is by no means difficult to see why Savannah might help motivate his work more than his hour-long train rides into the nation’s capital.

“A really big thing about Savannah that informs my work is how easy it is to live here,” Tollefson said. “It’s kind of a low-cost place. Everything is so gorgeous, you’re surrounded by all this beauty, and the weather’s really nice so maybe it subliminally leaks into the work… all these ideas about paradise. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.”

“Visitation,” oil on two panels, 14 x 25 in.

Tollefson’s work has a consistently bubbly, positive feeling to it, but both his pieces for the upcoming exhibition and his work as a whole also have themes of desire and longing. “I look at so many things that are about an ideal and something we should strive to be; I think that that has been major thread in my work for a long time,” he said. “And even when I was thinking about reality, and questioning what is reality, there’s still this kind of desire in the work to reach a certain point, or be something.”

Wish You Were Here has been in the works for a while but came together slowly, due to time constraints of Tollefson’s full time job commitments. In spite of this fact, though, he promises to augment the works themselves, many of which were created specifically for the show, with an installation of custom wall paintings for his pieces to sit on top of. With such a commitment to his work, it is no wonder that Iridian Gallery Vice-Chair Michael-Birch Pierce reached out to Tollefson to curate this exhibition for the gallery.

“He submitted an application to us the year after [his previous] show,” Pierce said, referring to Tollefson’s participation in Iridian Gallery’s 2016 show, Manufactured Faces, Performative Spaces, which Pierce also curated. “We looked at his work, we saw the possibility of what an entire body of work could be in the space, and were really excited about it. He was the one unanimous decision across the entire board about who, that year, in that cycle of applications, absolutely had to be here.”

Tollefson’s work features a lot of things going on at one time, which can be overwhelming at first, but also offers many different things audiences can take away. “On the surface level of the paintings, they are very inviting and playful,” Tollefson said. “Beyond that, I think there’s a lot of other concerns in the work. But if anything, I want [the audience] to have a joyful experience.”

Wish You Were Here opens Friday, April 13 with a reception from 7-9 PM. It will remain on display through May 26th. The Iridian Gallery at Diversity Richmond is located at 1407 Sherwood Ave. For more info, click here.