Mark Van Proyen is an Associate Professor at the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his critical writings have appeared in many publications, including Art Criticism, Artweek and Art Issues. He is currently working on a novel titled Theda’s Island, the story of which is set in the art world.
For over three decades, Dublin-based Patrick Graham has been making grave and complex paintings that may be hard to like, but are absolutely impossible to disrespect. His work bespeaks the same weight of heavy cultural burden as does that of Anselm Kiefer, another artist who (along with the recently passed Antonio Tapies and Cy Twombly) gives the viewer special purchase on the heavy side of sophisticated artistic emotion. Indeed, Graham is one of those artists who has always “found it in the paint,” and the thing that he has found is a raw, archaic urgency that is always resolved by the actual act of painting on the surface of the work, something very different than a physical afterthought connected to the shenanigans that can be enacted on a computer screen. In other words, his is a truly improvisational practice, and as devil-may-care as many of Graham’s work may seem, it is something very different in spirit than the current vogue for so-called “provisional painting,” which in the end is more an art of strategy and annotation than of pictorial self-invention. To put it plainly, Graham’s work is the real deal.
A pair of French words came to mind while I was looking at the Meridian Gallery’s 30-year survey of 33 of Graham’s paintings and drawings curated by Peter Selz. The first of those words is ecriture, which very loosely translates as “inscription” in a way that signifies designation taking precedence over description. The second of those words is blague, which in simple translation means joke, but more subtly means elaborate hoax, as in the question of “are you kidding?” Clearly, Graham’s work is not kidding, but the undeniable gravitas of his work is nonetheless spiced by a plucky and somewhat absurd buoyancy that separates it from any Germanic sturm and drang, meaning that any given painting or work on paper might be seen as pivoting from grim fatalism to a stubbornly optimistic gallows humor that might obliquely connect it to the late work of Philip Guston.
The earliest works in this exhibition hail from the early-middle 1980s, and feature abbreviated figures that seem to almost have been carved out of thick layers of oil paint. A large, two-figure composition titled, The Artist, The Woman from (1984) seems remarkable in this context. It features two elongated nude figures, one female and the other male, both awkwardly perched upon an isolated landscape in a way that relates them to some of the strangely self-deluded characters in Samuel Beckett’s plays. Clearly, it reflects the widespread vogue for neo-expressionist painting that was still visible in George Orwell’s fateful year. But it also reflects the idea that a figure can be painted in such a way so as to be more inscribed (rather than described) in a picture surface. Other paintings from this period also tend to feature figures, and they all seem more carved from painterly substance rather than modeled from the capture of light.
Perhaps the single most impressive work in the exhibition is the large diptych titled Dead Swan/ Captain’s Hill from 1999. In essence, the work is a panoramic battle scene that portrays a devastated landscape undergoing aerial attack from a fleet of crudely drawn warplanes, its human population primarily registered by a vast sea of grave markers. Although the work is not specific about any particular battle, it convincingly allegorizes the hell of war in multiple slatherings of thick, frothing paint festooned with a written inscription set on a canvas banner that is affixed to the painting’s surface near the bottom-right of the composition.
One of the real treats of this exhibition lies in its featuring of a large selection of Graham’s consistently stunning works on paper, most of which are modestly sized and feature a surprisingly rich mixture of artistic media, oftentimes including fabric and collage elements. Oftentimes, we see a deft use of ink and/or diluted paint working in various wet-into-wet techniques, as seen in figural fragments that seem like self-portraits in positions of absurd isolation. In some cases, such as Deposition: Study 6 (2009), these figures are paired with loosely gridded forms that seem to have snagged a small array of obscure pictographic treasures. In others such as Seeing Ingres: The Odalisque Series (2001), we see a female figure floating as if in a redemptive dream. But as is the case with all dream figures, they lie just beyond the grasp of the visible male protagonist pictured in the work, offering a reminder that art often achieves in fantasy what can never happen in reality.
–MARK VAN PROYEN
# # #
Patrick Graham: Thirty Years “The Silence Becomes the Painting” @ Meridian Gallery through April 14, 2012.
About the Author: