Monday, January 27, 2014

Oddities R Us

David Graham has made a career of searching for and finding cultural oddities and modest  -- very modest -- visual ironies.  A survey of them is on view at Gallery 339 in his show "David Graham: Thirty-five Years / 35 Pictures",  through March 15th.

Graham has covered a lot of territory lo these three and half decades and Gallery 339 chose a single picture from each year summarizing his peregrinations across the Continent.  Most of these images are of the built environment and man's interaction with it and are predominated by the vernacular architecture and signage that dots mostly rural and small town America.  Many bring to mind the tall tale postcards of another era. Indeed, one image of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, WI, is a direct descendant of those Tall Tale postcards captioned "The fish are big here", which usually showed a bass filling up an entire canoe or held aloft by a fisherman who is the same size. 
Tall Tale Post Card
In Graham's take the fish are so enormous people can be seen inside the open mouth of one of them gazing over the landscape.

Huge novelty dinosaurs outside a McDonald's in Benson, AZ., or a giant black and white dairy cow tethered to a trailer looming over a parking lot south of Oshkosh, WI, typify Graham's quest for the odd or incongruous. (In the Wisconsin photo a black and white dog is seen in the foreground lapping water from a puddle, announcing to anyone insufficiently impressed merely by a big cow "Look, they're both black and white!")

There are several photographs of pictures as well, some the interiors of artists' studios with still life setups and canvases on easels, others of trompe l'oeil paintings on building walls and still others of the pictures that make up the artifacts with which people surround themselves.  In one, from Claremont, KY, a framed photograph presumably of the deceased stands next to a grave and fresh flowers.  In front of them is an image on fabric of a telephone with the receiver off the hook and the caption "Jesus Called". One might be tempted to say this subset constitutes Graham's foray into an examination of the process of making pictures itself, but the probing is strictly for effect, not insight.

There are colorful views of old cars parked in front of a garage offering batteries; multi-colored doors on motels; public monuments of canon aimed at wall murals of the Statue of Liberty; road signs out in the middle of nowhere offering "Good Luck"; football players doing drills beneath a huge tower capped by an ear of corn; and an abandoned gas station in Golden Meadow, LA,  at which the huge canopy over the pumps has partially collapsed.

Unlike the work of his best-known predecessors who focused on vernacular expression, Walker Evans in particular, Graham's work inevitably plays for the easy laugh rather than anything penetrating.   Indeed, what impresses most here is how Graham treats every subject the same without nuance or distinction, just an endless supply he needs to collect and add to the catalog.

Though he started his project nearly forty years ago, long before the age of computers, Graham's work most reminds me of today's internet jokes.  You read them and then delete them.

(A version of this piece first appeared in the Broad Street Review:  Read it here)

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