Ben Tollefson: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

Ben Tollefson’s MFA Painting thesis exhibition, “Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain,” opened this past Friday at Non-Fiction Gallery. Gallery hoppers were welcomed to his world full of saturated rainbow colors where beauty is only as deep as the plastic surfaces Tollefson depicts in his painting.

Tollefson intricately curated the exhibition which featured both large and small paintings and several ceramic sculptures. His oil paintings, void of painterly touches or evidence of the brush, were full of meticulous modeled forms including statuesque figures, landscapes of inflatable plastic foliage, and portraits of ordinary individuals wearing ‘masks’ of celebrity’s facial features – among other delights.

featuring “Nah, I Ain’t Gotta Shoot I Got Mad Assist,” 84×60, oil on canvas (left)


“So many of the images are intentionally self-referential because I was really concerned about making this an immersive thing,” Tollefson said.

The artist’s plasticized self-portrait appears in various pieces and several hard, fleshy, prehistoric-looking  ‘creatures’ are explored both on the painted surface and in sculptures. The continuity of the echoed imagery along with the creative use of the gallery walls as an extension of the canvas, allowed the viewer to be transported to Tollefson’s candy-colored, if not slightly creepy, realm.

Tollefson began each work from a series of thumbnail sketches. “A lot of images come out of very much an imagined place. I resist observation as much as possible,” Tollefson said. He described his sketching as “[…] almost like stream of conscious. It’s like drawing to make your thoughts come out.”


Portrait of the Artist as A Young Mannequin, Oil


Thematically, his thoughts are focused on the contemporary world and the specific questions being posed by modern technologies.

“A lot of this work came out of ideas of simulacra and what really comes first: the map or the territory. So I use a lot of plastic imagery because it’s responding to a lot of what I see in the world as being really artificial, like the fact that we’re always looking at screens that really are nothing more than a mediator of data. But an image on a screen becomes a reality in a weird way. It’s a non-physical thing but we don’t really think about that.”

The exhibition calls attention to the disconnect that occurs in daily life by depicting Tollefson’s own simulated reality. It’s only upon close inspection that unease sets in and suddenly the figures appear cold and lifeless and the scenery reveals itself as a plastic, inflated fraud.


Big-Garden, Oil


“I love the idea of an inflatable because it’s completely empty, it’s completely surface but a full form.”

The vibrant saturated colors also play dual roles in Tollefson’s work. “I think that color is really generous and it was important with this work because [it] can be extremely cold in certain ways, with its sharpness. So color operates as something very welcoming to viewers, but the color is also very cosmetic,” Tollefson said.

Much of the color in this collection of works comes from flatly painted planes of pattern. Tollefson’s exquisitely rendered objects exist in a world that is given dimension almost completely by fields of pattern – pattern that shows dimension and space using the receding scale of the repeated shapes, or by obscuring parts of the subject matter. “Pattern is really important to what I’m doing right now. One of the more important things with pattern is that I think it’s a nice relief from really highly modeled forms, but I also use it to create space.”


featuring “Open Window, Open-Window” 24×18, oil on panel (left)


Upon first glance Tollefson’s work could seem as optimistic and happy as a Lisa Frank notebook, but after spending time lost in his “dystopian beautiful realities,”  (as his friend and business partner Heather MacRae described the work) the fact that society is actually grappling with its understanding of its own artificial reality takes root.

While rainbows are traditionally a symbol of hope, within Tollefson’s work the viewer doesn’t find much relief from the dark questions he plants in their mind. His rainbow – plastic of course – is subversively hung in the air by a beautifully tied ribbon, ready to be pulled loose or snipped from the sky, only to come crashing down into his deceptively beautiful but lifeless garden.



“Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain” will be on view until March 4th at Non-Fiction Gallery, 1522 Bull Street. The gallery hours are Saturday – Tuesday 1-5pm.

For more information about this exhibition contact:

To view more of Ben Tollefson’s work visit:



10% of all sales of work from “Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain” will be donated to the Non-Fiction Gallery’s Mobile Artist Program (MAP) pilot project, a Limited Artist Residency with Marshal Carbee. This project is Fiscally Sponsored by Art Rise Savannah.

To learn more and donate now visit:

Lauren Flotte

Author: Lauren Flotte

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