Allan Graham’s exhibit of recent work “Toadhouse aka. Allan Graham” at David Richard Gallery induces your mind to wander and your senses to inhale his multivalent sorceries. The first view of the show is from the outside, through the plate-glass gallery window. You notice a toilet plunger planted on a disk on the floor. Once you’re inside, standing next to it, you read “ENTERTAINING A THOUGHT” brushed on the rubber bulb. Participle as threshold.
Graham orients the show to its site while aiming the work of words at you, the viewer. The exhibit’s subtitle, “Any Position Limits the View (We Are Only Here for a Spell)” reinforces that the show is a kind of architecture. Read it up close, read it from across the street. The gallery densifies like a page through which the visitor strolls among Graham’s carbon spells.
Graham’s work states the epistemological power of art to turn words into objects. He takes a high-low romp through what those expressions might be, exactly. He materializes letters like “aliens” that you must imagine without having any idea of what they really are. Physicalized and random, the work’s energy is atomizing.
“Unidentified Flying Self” is a six-foot-diameter graphite-blackened discus of canvas that the artist hung high beneath the gallery’s skylight. Plunger handles spot the floor, punctuating the gallery like aids to navigation. Portraits of Lady Godiva and Anne Boleyn back up to a pair of custom tractor-trailer mud flaps bawdily announcing “CARNAL SPOKEN HERE.” The phrase addresses the beer side of the tracks.
The art-historical stable of puns and aslant syntaxes is activated in real time, from Marcel Duchamp’s Rotorelief to Robert Smithson’s A Heap of Language, through Adrian Piper’s “Dear Friend. I am black,” to the HOLLYWOOD sign. Once an artist objectifies letters, as Graham does, their material qualities, metonymy and meanings fall subject to his thaumaturgy.
Continually in the show, things are not what they seem. Graham explores opposites. He turns words into objects by making the carbon material, object-like. But he also explores formats where the words are fine filagree like molecules in a gas. They coalesce into object-like groups.
“I AM BORROWING YOUR WATCH,” spanning one wall of the gallery’s central atrium, keystones the show. It shapes letters as near-semaphoric geometries in two ways — as abstractions of their forms, and as abstractions of the space around and inside them.
Literally, the phrase is almost absurd. One seldom borrows another’s watch. It also points to the promise of the show’s subtitle: the artist has your viewing attention for a while, for a spell. He’s taking this interval to bewitch as he insists on your pausing to make the most of your time together. Prestidigitator, he picks your attention’s pocket , the while showing how it is done. Alluding to legerdemain, though, isn’t practicing it.
Up close, you can witness how densely the artist lays his graphite on the ground of the canvas. Its scumbles and scuffs blur the contrast between black letters and white ground. This can frustrate the conclusive impulse one seeks from reading. Occupying an adjacent trio of square canvases are disguised words that you must decode in order to come up with “KILL” “EYES” “MEAN”: Mean Eyes Kill. The next painting reads “CON TEXT”.
Of course, one reads the entire show as a context, taking cues from one work to understand another. But that painting also raises the case of text that cons. Ambiguouslanguage trips you up by non-sense or dissembles and demands your logos to finish it. Perhaps the picture paints the word the best in “Alien Hands (Enigma),” where the word “enigma,” forming two filagreed hands, renders concrete poetry in the primordial soup. Graham’s the space cowboy in an alphabet galaxy.