Did you ever notice that a traditional three-line haiku, when centered on the page, is vaguely disc-shaped, like a flying saucer? You can bet that multimedia artist Allan Graham noticed. Graham, who died on Feb. 28 at age 76, worked with words and letters in many of his projects and had a keen eye for seeing words as shapes. In his UFO drawings from the late 1990s, for instance, he depicted words, rendered in graphite on paper, in jumbled heaps. But in the midst of them, disc-like shapes appear, composed of lines of a single repeated word such as “kulture” or “was.” In a way, these “UFOs” symbolize the coalescing thoughts of the mind, assembling themselves with the rapidity of a flying saucer darting through the sky, out of the vast stores of the human vocabulary.
Graham loved literature and he loved words and letters. But he used them to ask people to think about them in new ways — especially in his late-career works, in which they took on a primary role. “He was kind of doing this play,” says architect Conrad Skinner, a friend of the artist. “What is an object? What is the relationship of language to an object? What does a word mean? How can you affect the meaning of a word by the way it’s presented? He could turn a letter into anything, and he could turn anything into a letter.”
A memorial exhibition of Graham’s work, entitled What makes the wave break, opens at 5. Gallery on Saturday, Oct. 26. At the time of this writing, gallery staff were still in the process of selecting artworks for the show but planned to exhibit pieces from several periods of Graham’s career, including Sorry, a 7-by-9-foot oil painting, which was the last painting he made before he died.
Graham used words and language in his compositions almost as a meditative exercise. On their own, the titles of some of his works could appear almost meaningless, or so subjective as to only have a meaning for the artist, like his UFO drawing from in an if shower (1999). But, often, his titles were illustrative of the work in a literal way. In a self-portrait from a series called Selfies, for example, the title Large selfie attacked by large thoughts in an is universe with limits (2018) sounds almost nonsensical, but it’s actually descriptive. Graham wrote the word “is” hundreds of times, like so many swarming gnats, over the self-portrait. Two condensed groupings of the word “thought” cover a portion of his face. A grouping of the repeated word “limit” veils his left eye. In that way, the title expresses exactly what’s in the image.
“He was totally into puns and stuff like that,” Skinner says. “He was into pataphysics: Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp-kind of attitudes.”
The term “pataphysics” was invented by the French symbolist writer Jarry as a name for a branch of philosophy that deals with an imagined realm beyond metaphysics. It was intended as a parody or foil of the theoretical sciences and is often expressed in absurd statements. Jarry called it “the science of imaginary solutions.” His ruse was to make pataphysics sound like something profound.
Graham was a serious artist who approached his work, no matter how playful, with purpose. “Once he said to me, ‘I chose art because art’s the most interesting way of looking at things,’ ” Skinner says.
Graham was born in San Francisco. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute and San Jose State University before moving to Albuquerque in 1965 to attend the University of New Mexico. He received a bachelor of fine art’s degree from the university in 1967 and made Albuquerque his permanent home. He remained there until the late 1990s when he moved with his wife, artist Gloria Graham, to a new home in the mountains east of Santa Fe.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s he made several bodies of work under the name Toadhouse. The name’s origin, like much of the way he used text in his art, had a double meaning. At his home in Albuquerque, he built a subterranean, kiva-like structure with his son Jess. Each morning, when they’d go out to dig, they’d find spadefoot toads that had wandered into the hole the night before. When the room was finished, he’d use it as a place to think and to write notes to himself, which he would then share with the poet V.B. Price. He started signing the notes “from Toadhouse.”
“Later I found that the toad is used in Zen writing as an image for the brain or Mind — it hops around in all directions (also it looks like a brain — bifurcated & lumpy),” he wrote on his website, toadhousewords.com. “Toadhouse is therefore mindhouse.”
Graham published several short books under the pseudonym Toadhouse, such as Living and Dying in a Mind Field (2017) and Gone Fishing With Samy Rosenstock (2016). These are collections of brief writings that, like Zen Buddhist koans, are often paradoxical in nature: “The way to the front is from the back. Movement is the instant passed on.”
In 1990, Graham used some of these koan-like statements in stickers that he placed on re-chromed antique auto bumpers. The bumpers were exhibited that year at Angles Gallery in Santa Monica, mounted on the walls just below knee level, about the height of a bumper still attached to the car. The work harks back to Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), an early example of what the French Dadaist called “readymades”: found objects transformed into art with little effort beyond adding a title, signing the work, or placing it in an artistic context, like an exhibit. Duchamp’s Fountain was just an upended urinal he signed “R. Mutt,” the pseudonym he used when submitting the work to New York’s Society of Independent Artists for an exhibition. Similarly, Graham’s artistic alterations were virtually nonexistent, beyond getting the bumpers re-plated and adding stickers.
“He told a story about when he was doing these,” says Max Baseman, owner of 5. Gallery, who plans to show one of Graham’s bumpers in the exhibit. “He kept bringing all these gorgeous old car bumpers in to get re-chromed and the guy kept raising the price and said, ‘Well, if you have a Porsche, and this and that, you can afford it.’ And Allan said, ‘No, I just have the bumpers. There is no rest of the car.’ ”
Graham’s bumper series was at once an homage to Duchamp and idiosyncratic of his own artistic intentions. He was a disruptor of artistic norms. Challenging the viewer’s expectations characterized much of his work. In the 1980s, for instance, he moved away from the traditional rectangular format of painting and began thinking of the medium in more sculptural terms. He took the three main components of a typical painting (paint, canvas, and wood) and made compositions in which the stretcher bars showed through the canvas. His interest in working with these materials evolved into increasingly elaborate, wall-mounted works layered in paint, newsprint, and book pages, like some odd conflation of painting, printmaking, and sculpture.
“There was very much a literal layering of material — what you’d call a palimpsest — and he really worked all this stuff, deeply and carefully,” Skinner says.
The Santa Fe-based architect first met Graham in 2013 at David Richard Gallery. Skinner, who is also an arts journalist, was there to review Graham’s exhibition Toadhouse (aka Allan Graham): Any Position Limits the View (We Are Only Here for a Spell) for the online art and culture magazine AdobeAirstream.com. “I wrote the article and he really liked it. He used it as one of the essays in the catalog. That’s how I got to know him. I used to go down to his studio. I think we met at least once a month, very regularly, for a long time. We’d go out to eat lunch at some ordinary place like Horseman’s Haven. Then we’d go to his studio and he’d show me what he was working on.”
Baseman says that Graham was suffering from heart-related pain for some time and was scheduled for surgery in early spring. “He passed at the hospital,” he says.
At the time, Skinner was visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “I got an email from Gloria that said he had died,” Skinner says. “I just unabashedly started to cry. For me, he was an excellent person to know — just a very resonant connection to art. I miss him a lot.” ◀
▼ What makes the wave break? Allan Graham
▼ 5. Gallery, 2351 Fox Road, No. 700, 505-257-8417, 5pointgallery.com
▼ Through Nov. 30