Ben Verlangen


Ben Verlangen’s work focuses on the way in which photographic imagery is used in journalism, advertising, displays, and book illustrations. Carefully choosing his subject matter, enlarging it, and airbrushing it onto canvas, he questions the meaning of the photographic images he appropriates. Verlangen doesn’t believe in making things easy for the viewer; his paintings defy the ordinary boundaries between the figurative and the nonfigurative. By combining geometric patterns and photography-based images, he highlights the tension between perception and the way it is affected by the mass media.

War and Peace: The Politics of Perception, 1989–90, consists of the image of People’s Army soldiers dancing in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square, subjected to a barrage of geometric cells, in which another picture of soldiers practicing kung fu is hidden. It seems as if both images are struggling for visibility. Lacking explanatory captions, this icon of the Chinese revolt points to an intriguing paradox. Although these pictures are by no means the most famous, they are nevertheless familiar icons of the student revolt. The optical distortion in Verlangen’s grid suggests that a well-known documentary photograph doesn’t provide the viewer with as much factual information as is generally believed. Taken out of context and subjected to Verlangen’s optical distortions, the meaning and the significance of the icon evaporate and reveal that a certain state of aphasia is basic to the visual experience. Additional textual information is required in order to comprehend the images fully.

Employing little more than conventional optical illusion to force the eye to see either the overall pattern or the larger image—but never both at the same time—Verlangen creates an objectifying distance to contemporary media icons that is necessary for his own analysis. Verlangen’s works are not ideological but perceptual, and subjects like sports, recent history, ballroom dancing, and animals can serve the same purpose as political imagery. By mixing a geometric pattern with both the negative and positive projections of photographs in strikingly bright colors, Verlangen creates an effect similar to camouflage. Remarkably enough he does this without any reference to the obvious patterning favored by the military. On The Nature of Camouflage, 1990, a painting of a bird in its natural surrounding, is the highlight of the show by virtue of the sheer brilliance of its colors and their optical effects.

André Minnaar