Words, says artist Allan Graham, are the way the mind works.
“We use description to try to understand what we call reality,” the Pecos-based artist said in a recent telephone interview. His fascination with wordplay (Graham is also a published poet) shows in the intricate title he gave a show of his work at David Richard Gallery in the Railyard: “Any Position Limits the View (We Are Only Here for a Spell).”
“It’s almost self-explanatory,” Graham said. “It’s such a simpleminded statement because it’s so true. And the word ‘spell’ has three meanings: a short-period of time, to spell a word, or an illusion; to be under a spell.”
Graham, who sometimes uses the name “Toadhouse” for a backyard underground kiva he and his son built in Albuquerque years ago, was born in 1943 in San Francisco, Calif. He is a contemporary American artist based in New Mexico. His work includes sculpture, painting, poetry, and video. The David Richard exhibition surveys the range of text and language-based art that Graham has done by himself and in collaboration with others, including his wife, the well-known artist Gloria Graham.
He’s also published poetry under the moniker Toadhouse. There is no current toad house at his home and studio near Pecos. “We called it that because desert spadefoot toads kept jumping into it. It’s was a kiva-like structure underground. I would go out there and write these little things. I gave them to my friend V.B. Price, and I would just say, ‘They’re from the Toadhouse’, Graham said.
“I’ve always liked the thing G.K. Chesterton said: ‘Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.’ Toadhouse kind of goes along with that, because it’s so absurd that people have mocked me.” The son is grown now and Graham, who’ll be 70 in October, has a 6-year-old grandson.
The David Richard presentation features the many different ways by which Graham has de constructed the English language over the past 30 years of his career using the words themselves as the visual language. Canvas and oil paint, handmade paper, graphite, ink, toilet paper rolls and rubber plungers are his varied props and media. Sometimes the words are presented in standard fonts; at other times cursive text streams across the page to create abstract images that become visualizations of phrases such as “Chance Forming On the Edge Of Need” and “Why Forming In An Is Universe.” His latest paintings are comprised of four-letter words written with no spaces and the letters stacked in quadrants, two over two.
“Initially, the viewer sees a pattern in black and white, some purely geometric and others a bit more anthropomorphic depending upon the grouping of letters, but then the actual word emerges through the abstraction,” curator David Eichholtz said in a written statement. “Through his work the viewer realizes language is an abstraction, both in the way it is spoken and written. The meaning and power of language is not only in the content of the chosen word, but more in the context in which it is delivered and even then, subject to personal interpretation.”
Graham himself explains it more simply: “I was writing and I could see multiple meanings in words. For a while, words as titles ended up becoming the pieces themselves.”
One of the featured works is “Add-Verse,” a two-part collaborative project between Gloria Graham, Allan Graham and 25 poets produced between 2003 and 2005. This is an installation project in which Gloria Graham took photos of the 25 poets and Allan Graham videotaped their hands and manuscripts, while they read their poetry. The video portion is comprised of a montage of 3-to-5-minute segments of each poet reading their own poetry in their natural setting with just their hands and the text from which they are reading captured on video. It is a seamless loop with no interruption or introduction between the poets to produce one continuous poem.
Also presented are spontaneous photographs of each poet taken during their individual readings that measure 24-by-24 inches square in black and white. The featured poets who collaborated on the project are Jimmy Santiago Baca, Mei mei Berssenbrugge, Maxine Chernoff, Wanda Coleman, Clark Coolidge, Robert Creeley, Diane Di Prima, Vincent Ferrini, Gene Frumkin, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Jane Hirshfield, Anselm Hollo, Paul Hoover, Joanne Kyger, Nathaniel Mackey, Jackson Mac Low, Michael McClure, Harryette Mullen, V. B. Price, Carl Rakosi, Tom Raworth, Arthur Sze, Anne Waldman and John Yau.
“It was a mutual idea between the two of us,” Allan Graham said. “We both launched ourselves into it. It gave us a great break from the art world to spend three years doing it. We had 25 poets and our rule was you had to be 50 or older to participate. Seven have died. It seemed like a number of them died within about six months. It got a little creepy.”
The poet, art historian and critic John Yau has written an essay for the catalog of this show — a version of “Add-Verse” will appear at the Brooklyn Museum in October as well — and Yau is the other collaborator with Allan Graham on the David Richard show.
“John Yau sent me postcards and I would respond to them. Yau would write words on the postcards. The word he wrote on this postcard with a picture of the Crucifixion was ‘Morttuage.’ I wondered, ‘What if I cancelled it and it never happened? How would the world be different?
“It’s a controversial piece; it cancels the Crucifixion. There are going to be things here that people in Santa Fe aren’t used to,” Graham said.