UFOs. You’ve seen them on the internet, and you’ve seen them on TV. Perhaps you’ve even seen them in person or thought you did. Think about the way they move, flicking in and out of sight at dizzying speed and stopping to hover just long enough to for you to notice. Then, whoosh, they’re gone again, the way a random thought or word is held pure and crystalline in the mind but vanishes — along, it seems, with your memory of it. Allan Graham, under the moniker Toadhouse, presents pieces from his UFO series at David Richard Gallery as part of the exhibition Any Position Limits the View (We Are Only Here for a Spell). But Toadhouse’s paintings are not about visitors from outer space — except insofar as that’s a metaphor for thoughts themselves.
At a distance, a painting from the series looks nearly monochromatic, and shapes emerge: clusters of marks that coalesce into disclike objects. The forms you see are composed of words. Some are sentences, and others are single words that rain down or encircle the more figurative imagery. As a title, From and Form in an If Shower — one of the paintings from the UFO series — sounds like the kind of tag that provokes a viewer to say “I just don’t get it.” But Toadhouse uses titles descriptively. The UFO shapes in the painting were made using the two words from and form. The marks falling all around them are repetitions of the word if.
“The only things I’m showing that have been shown before are the UFO paintings,” said Graham, who began signing his pieces as Toadhouse in the late 1980s. “I started out as a painter. Then I did three-dimensional pieces, taking stretcher bars, manipulating them and stretching canvas over them. When I went back to the flat surface again, I was doing all this writing, just notes to myself, that I shared with [Vincent] Barrett Price, the poet. We go back a good 30 years. I started writing these notes to myself in a subterranean room I built with my son. We called it Toadhouse because we kept finding toads in it. That’s where I started writing the notes, and I’d give them to Barrett.” Graham and his son built the kivalike structure at Graham’s former home in Albuquerque.
Price is one of 25 poets represented in a photographic and video project Graham collaborated on with his wife, Gloria Graham, called Add-Verse. David Richard shows Add-Verse, as well. “We did it together 10 years ago. Gloria took the photographs, which are all candid shots she did while I was talking to them, and I shot video. It’s a historic piece because seven of the poets died since then. The oldest was 100 to begin with — that was Carl Rakosi. There are some that are local, like Arthur Sze and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, but the others, like Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Robert Creeley — they’re historic names.” The Add-Verse photographs are portraits of the poets, while the video component of the project is a montage in a continuous loop. The poets recite examples of their work, and the camera focuses on their hands and the text they’re reading.
“We have enough poet friends to know that I’m not a poet,” Graham said. “They’re dedicated in an entirely different way. But I always saw a twist in language where it would go different ways depending on how you received it.”
The exhibition title refers to the multiple meanings of words but also to the ways in which we look at art. The view can be limited by one’s physical position and by the subjective associations one makes with words. “I tagged on We Are Only Here for a Spell to the title. The word spell has three meanings. Time, language, and illusion.”
David Richard also features Graham’s pre-Toadhouse sculptures — the oldest, As Real as Thinking, goes back about 30 years. These sculptures are shaped canvases plastered with pages of text. Language and wordplay have dominated Graham’s work since that time. “It’s an interest in the way the mind sees things through words. I was strongly visual prior to that, so I just brought the visual and language things together.”
Most of the work created since his show at SITE Santa Fe in 2000 has not been shown publicly and includes hard-edged minimalist paintings from a series mostly based on four-letter words, some of them swear words. These also appear at David Richard. The paintings read as abstractions, but their titles, such as Full and All, are, like the UFO titles, descriptive. The words can be detected in the paintings. Graham composed them as arrangements of geometric shapes, using just the negative spaces between the letters. He examines the relationship between language in its written form and art, erasing any perceived barrier between them. The medium he uses, common to artist and writer alike, is graphite. “Writing is a form of drawing. When I did the UFOs with all the little words, it kept taking off. But you have to build the painted surface of the canvas up to the point where it will take the writing with very little pressure, otherwise you’d be cracking the paint. It’s got to move fluidly. I knifed on thin layers of oil paint. It’s a long process to where it would close the weave off.” Graham applies the graphite to the paint before the paint has fully cured, so, when completely dry, the graphite doesn’t smudge.
More recent works such as Urinating Beneath a Star Swept Sky are intended to have a bit of humor. “Humor loosens the mind up to accept things,” Graham said. “I did an interview with John Yau of The Brooklyn Rail and quoted G.K. Chesterton. It goes something like, ‘Do you know why angels can fly? Because they take themselves lightly.’ It’s just fantastic, and I try to remind myself of that because the art world is way too serious. I grew up with a father who made really bad jokes at the dinner table. I realized much later that I inherited it. Now I realize that our son does that, too.”
The UFOs are the few works in the show in which the arrangement of words have a visual appearance similar to the objects in the series title. “There’s a tradition of what’s called concrete poetry, where you do drawings with words to look like what’s described in the poem, but that wasn’t what UFOs was about. It was never diagrammatic.” But imagery in the series does reflect the meaning of the words in an odd way. “I took the word kill, and when I wrote it using just the negative spaces to create the letters, one element was like this arrow pointing back. Automatically you make a reference in your mind, but it’s kind of like watching a flame and listening to music, and you’re convinced the flicker goes along with the music. It’s the mind that makes the connections.”