August 20 – October 6, 2021
Roll Up Project is pleased to present photographs by Ben Blackwell. Blackwell’s images of buildings tell the idiosyncratic stories of communities across the western United States. He looks closely at vernacular architecture and the way embellishments added over time – including layers of paint, signs, and security gates – add context to the places we inhabit. Blackwell features photographs taken in California and Wyoming, two states with differing perspectives on what it means to live in the Wild West.
For several years, Blackwell has been documenting buildings along International Avenue in Oakland. The colors and signage on these buildings each have their own layers of meaning and identity, and Blackwell captures them as the collaborative works of art that they’ve become. Some are exceedingly plain, while others are detailed in bright, eye-catching hues.
During the first year of the pandemic, Blackwell quarantined in Wyoming and explored nearby towns. While the settings are different from Oakland’s commercial enterprises, they reflect upon life in the West, and on rural gathering places. Blackwell’s deep knowledge of composition, color, and light transforms ordinary buildings into unique and exceptional portraits.
Two photographs fill the Harrison Street window. On the left, Ten Sleep, Wyoming (2020) depicts a boxy, false front wood home. An indifferent horse stands in front of the house, its brown body blending into the warm tones of the wood paneling. On the right, Goc Pho Café (2019) captures a two-story restaurant and apartment in Oakland. A similarly unconcerned person waits for a bus, dwarfed by the architectural mishmash of bay windows, Spanish colonial revival details, and false front façade. Both are distinctly western styles, but they couldn’t be more different.
In the Third Street windows, Blackwell presents six additional photographs. Bay City Alternators (2021), Safee’s Hardware (2019), and KiNg KoNg Rotisserie (2019) all highlight the way people bring life to structures through murals, graffiti, and signs. Hogan School (2020), Molt Hardware (2020), and Graybull, Wyoming (2020), remind us that buildings have their own life cycles, and may fall by the wayside when they no longer serve the needs of their communities.
It is remarkably difficult to date these photographs – all of the architectural styles are at least 40 years old, and without cars or people to give any contextual hints, they could have been taken decades ago. The buildings become timeless and totemic symbols for the ways we inhabit spaces, and the places we leave behind.
About the artist
Ben Blackwell has been taking photographs for over 50 years and his work is in the collections of the Yale Museum of Art, Spencer Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the International Center for Photography. From 1979 to 2011, he was the Principal Photographer at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive and the contract photographer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Today, Ben is focusing on his continuing studio practice, while his commercial practice specializes on unique projects, with private clients, major museums, galleries, and publishers, nationally and internationally. Ben Blackwell holds a BFA from the University of Texas at Austin, and an MA in Art Practice from the University of California, Berkeley.
Learn more about his work at benblackwell.com.