Review: Shelli Tollman’s ‘Delicate Disorders’

Tollman's paintings are complex, and tell a highly personal story of growing up in South Africa


Seeing the exhibition “Delicate Disorders,” on view at Bale Creek Allen Gallery proved a great escape into the complex and highly personal story of Los Angeles-based painter, Shelli Tollman.

First impressions included healthy doses of Faux-Naif and Neo-Folk style from the early aughts, in paintings that tinker with flat to depth-ambiguous perspective, very bright color, and loads of strange characters engaged in mysterious arrangements and narratives.

Things that also came to my mind were Leonora Carrington’s magical realism and surrealist depictions of transformative states; Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s topsy-turvy “proverbial” world in which peasants illustrate folly and vice; along with Hieronymus Bosch’s medieval visions of hedonism’s price — torture and suffering.

For her part Tollman says she’s “drawn to the art of Henry Darger, Marnie Weber and Florine Stettheimer, where groups of people try frantically to escape into fantasy.”

So let’s get into it.

“Somewhere in this World” is a 30” x 40” oil on canvas (2011) depicting a populated outdoor scene through an aperture of sorts. (Didn’t Warner Bros. do this in some cartoons?) Both Black and White children initially appear to play games and enjoy the companionship of their animal consorts, oblivious to surrounding threats. Poster girl for vulnerability, Little Red Riding Hood traipses; hulking man wields hatchet; lion takes down bloody prey; and faceless (father figure?) shakes naked child upside down. There also appears to be a gnome.

Clearly Tollman’s romps are not so lighthearted. Rather they are riddled with traumas of childhood, and memories of growing up in South Africa. I ask the artist how racial and cultural diversity experienced on two continents shaped her work.

“In every way really,” she says. “For example, my African nanny, Beauty, was a witchdoctor and I used to go her room where she would throw bones and tell me about the future. She had this bed that she would set on double paint cans to protect her from the Tikolshe (an evil gnome-like creature in Zulu mythology) while she slept. A few of these creatures can be found in my paintings.”

Nail Polish, Talcum Powder and Suicide. 2019 Oil on canvas. 30" x 40"
Shelli Tollman “Nail Polish, Talcum Powder and Suicide.” 2019. Oil on canvas. 30″ x 40.” Courtesy the artist.

The oil on canvas “Nail Polish, Talcum Powder and Suicide” (2019) grabs viewers with its range of shocking magentas and pinks. Defiant of traditional iconographic interpretation, it instead deals with the artist’s life and struggles. Buildings, arcade games and groups of seated figures in masks, reflect the bohemian atmosphere of Hillbrow, an inner-city neighborhood in Johannesburg.

Decoratively packaged beauty products usually relate to vanity or consumerism. Not here. Powder and polish represent sensory experiences associated with the artist’s mental illness, “how one moment I feel glittery and sweet smelling and the next I want to jump off a building,” she says.

“Just One More Time” (2019) features another symbol of youth, the carousel. Around the amusement ride (that goes nowhere) are smaller scenes in which children appear to swing and play. Inside the carousel, three riders are highlighted. The central figure is a Black male with an almost portrait-like level of detail to his  face, tie and vest. He represents the continual violence that people of color face. Two hybrid figures, one with a cat face and one with an elephant head, flank the male figure inside of the machine.

More predatory than benign, Tollman points out an ominous message within the painting: “On top of the ride is a white soldier boy. The merry-go-round is his shooting range.”

Shelli Tollman Just One More Time. 2019 Oil, collage on canvas. 36" x 36"
Shelli Tollman, “Just One More Time.” 2019 Oil, collage on canvas. 36″ x 36.” Courtesy the artist.

“Childlike and “folk-like” don’t encapsulate Tollman’s idiosyncratic style fully. She’s definitely trained, having studied at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. And her paintings aren’t simply flat and decorative (like a lot of folk art), but instead incorporate emotive drips, painterly abstraction and collaged elements.

Yet she is drawn to children as subjects and childlike things, and once worked for Disney painting miniatures. “I love toys and Disneyland, I think that influence is in my work somewhere.”

It might just be that her quasi-naïve style enables her to communicate more easily. As she says, “Painting is a way to deal with issues that were too painful to deal with in any other way.”

“Delicate Disorders” is on view through Oct. 18at Bale Creek Allen Gallery, 916 Springdale Road in the Canopy complex.


Erin Keever
Erin Keever
Erin Keever is an Adjunct Professor of Art History, freelance writer, art historian and art appraiser. She lives and works in Austin, and serves on the Sightlines board.

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