In Celebration of Toadhouse’s Years on This Earth
“What does not change/is the will to change”
In lieu of a preface, I would simply like to state that this long overdue exhibition, “Any Position Limits the View (We Are Only Here For A Spell)” at David Richard Gallery, celebrates the 70th birthday of Allan Graham (a.k.a. Toadhouse). It is a celebration the artist deserves, for the generosity of his work and his spirit. I write this not only as an art critic, but also as a friend, admirer, poet and collaborator.
In 2007, while reviewing an exhibition of Toadhouse’s drawings at Feature Inc., New York (January 13 – February 17, 2007), I characterized him as:
[A] conceptual artist who has never developed a style or signature mode of presentation, which makes what he does nearly as rare as a unicorn.
I wrote this seven years after our first brief meeting in Santa Fe, while he was installing As REAL as thinking, the large survey exhibition organized by Kathleen Shields for the cavernous, multi-roomed gallery at SITE Santa Fe, a space he easily filled with radically different works. The exhibition title came from a line by our mutual friend, the poet Robert Creeley, who suggested that we meet. It was Stuart Arends, another mutual friend and artist, who brought us together.
When I met Toadhouse, I already knew that he was a friend of a number of poets, but I did not yet know how important words have been to his practice, nor had I experienced many of the various ways he uses words in his work – from incorporating Buddhist death poems in an installation, to covering sculptures with book pages, to attaching his own bumper stickers to rechromed car bumpers, to deconstructing words into graphite and oil pseudo-ideograms where the figure-ground relationship contributes to the work’s meaning.
I also had no idea that we would eventually collaborate on a series of works that used postcards, an idea he came up with, or that my family and I would stay with him and his wife, Gloria Graham, who is also an artist, in their hay bale house in Las Vegas, New Mexico, overlooking a vast stretch of uninhabited land. All of this and more crossed my mind as I sat down to write this, wondering what form it might take – an essay or a memoir being among the choices. It was then that I realized that, in order to be true to Toadhouse’s diverse work and to his generous spirit, I had to write something that did not fit neatly into accepted categories.
Toadhouse is the pseudonym that Allan Graham uses for whatever he makes that incorporates words. The name, Toadhouse, was originally what the artist called a subterranean, kiva-like meditation room that he and his son Jesse had hand dug on their property. It seems that every morning it was filled with toads. Later, Graham read a Zen poem in which “toad” was a metaphor for “mind,” suggesting that Toadhouse meant Mind House.
There are many reasons why Graham might have chosen Toadhouse as a pseudonym or, as I would like to think, alter ego. One reason might be that Graham, who knows lots of poets, decided it would be presumptuous to use his name in works involving words, that to do so would be to claim that he too was a poet, which I know from conversation he is not ever likely to do. To take the name Toadhouse would convey that he wasn’t taking himself too seriously, but, on another level, he was. As seriously as, say, Samuel Clemens using the nom de plume, “Mark Twain.”
Whatever the reason, Graham began using the self-effacing pseudonym Toadhouse in 1990 for a series of books of haiku and koan-like statements, some of which found their way onto stickers emblazoned on automobile bumpers that the artist rechromed and mounted low on the wall. One of the bumper stickers said: “For a sparrow, life takes flight” – a phrase that simultaneously make sense and nonsense. Graham seems to want to create that short circuit in our thinking, to help us rethink our assumptions, the many givens we accept without question.
Imagine my puzzlement and delight as I went from a darkened room where a circle of Buddhist death poems, mounted on low stands, required that the viewer bend over or kneel in order to read them, to standing in a well-lit room with shiny car bumpers jutting out from the wall at about the height they would be if still attached to a car. I immediately grasped that Graham made his work according to an inner logic and that he cared little about art world trends.
In the late 1990s, shortly after moving into the house in the mountains east of Santa Fe, where he and Gloria currently reside, Graham began working with words in his drawings. This is how he described what he was up to in an interview we did in 2007 (Brooklyn Rail, December 2007 – January 2008):
I took red rosin paper we’d been using in the construction of the house, and, because we had an outhouse out here, I started writing “dung” over and over, and made a combination of Chinese landscapes, soft mountains, and a sitting figure. I just went from there to where a word cluster looked slightly like a UFO, and I thought, “I can’t do this, not living in New Mexico.” (laughs) “This is sure death.” That lasted about three or four minutes and then I thought, “Oh well, whatever you do, you do it. Nobody has to see it.” So I started doing drawings that had a cluster of one word that looked like a UFO moving through a field of other words. That’s the first real breakthrough to where I started working with words and my own words in that sense, and they were small, and they were very time-consuming.
In these drawings, words such as “dung,” “lake” and “bird” become the things they name. Typically, Graham would write “lake” over and over in tiny, precise script until it formed a shape the viewer would read-see as a lake. “Birds” and “UFOs” flew through the sky. Words became things. In depicting a dung pile by literally piling up the word “dung,” Graham embraced his body’s existence in time. At the same time, by layering the words, Graham defines seeing as an act of untangling. He transforms classical Chinese landscape painting, which arises out of calligraphy, into something that is utterly his own, which is no small accomplishment. It is this kind of engagement with language as an object that distinguishes his work from other artists using words: Bruce Nauman, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and Kay Rosen.
From the first of these drawings, where words became shapes, to the more recent works, in which he deconstructs words while compelling viewers to sound them out phonetically, the territory Graham explores is situated between word and image. Using graphite and oil on large canvases, he takes apart a word or a phrase, an action calibrated to slow down our reading. The familiar becomes strange, but more importantly, it stands revealed (as Charles Olson would say). At the same time – and this seems in keeping with Graham’s whole career – the works are somehow both a drawing and a painting, a hybrid.
In the recent Icon (2013), Graham draws two bars, each one extending in from the left and right sides of the canvas to form the white letter “I” out of the negative space. The “I,” made up of these two horizontals spanning the canvas and a vertical that joins them, occupies the upper two thirds of the composition. In the bottom third, Graham has created cutouts on a black ground that form three similarly curved letters: C-O-N. The white “I” sits like a column on the base provided by the black ground.
The viewer can read the letters in at least two ways: I con and, as it is sounded out, “Eye con.” Graham has used the word “icon” to take itself apart, to expose an icon as something that is not objective, that is a product of culture and an agreed upon belief. Moreover, the drawing suggests that icons are repeatedly subject to various forms of manipulation (or con job), as anyone who has seen how the American flag (as a symbol) has been used and misused will tell you.
In MANMAID (2007), Graham pairs “man” and “maid,” which the viewers sound out as “manmade.” The pairing conveys the inequality of the sexes as well as suggests who is responsible for the imbalance. The succinctness of MANMAID is unrivalled and – despite its pointed meaning – I would claim non-didactic. The artist doesn’t lecture the viewer. Rather, he uses a homophone to stir us out of our habits of thinking.
In EXIT (2013), Graham sets the letters EX above the letters IT. While the letters E, I and T, all in white, are similar in their blockiness, the X is made of two thin, crisscrossing white lines. The difference in the letters causes the X to stand out, as if it were separate from the others, suggesting the phrase, X marks the spot. This raises the question, What spot does the X mark? There is of course another way to read-see EXIT, which is EX-IT, the it (or thing) is no longer what it once was, which reinforces the meaning of the word, EXIT. It has left, as we all must one day.
In EXIT, as in the other drawings, Graham shapes how he lives in time. He does this knowing that his exit is inevitable and that if all he can do is make his X, so be it. His works convey this awareness with immense grace and humor. Such acumen is rare and, I would add, necessary.
Decipher with Difficulty: Toadhouse (aka. Allan Graham) at David Richard Gallery
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. Ambiguous language 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.
TOADHOUSE (a.k.a. ALLAN GRAHAM)
Any Position Limits The View (We Are Only Here For A Spell)
The presentation features many different ways in which Allan Graham, over the past thirty years of his career, has deconstructed the English language by literally envisaging words, phrases and concepts using the words themselves as the visual language. Canvas and oil paint, handmade paper, graphite, ink, video, toilet paper rolls and rubber plungers are his varied supports and media. Sometimes the words are presented in standard fonts, 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. Co-opting the internet language of long single-line addresses, he comments on celebrity and social status with long paintings such as “tour de farce.coma” and “is.compost”. 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.
Allan Graham’s studio practice includes painting, drawing and sculpture in a variety of media and his artwork has been exhibited and collected internationally. He has had numerous solo exhibitions and artwork work included in group exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Tucson, Dallas, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Rome and Varese, Italy, Lugano, Switzerland and Dusseldorf, Germany among other cities. His art is included in the permanent collections of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY), Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza (Varese, IT), The Panza Collection, Museo Cantonale d’ Arte (Lugano, Switzerland), High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA), Museum of Fine Arts (Santa Fe, NM), University Of New Mexico Art Museum (Albuquerque), Albuquerque Museum (NM), Denver Art Museum (CO), Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at U. Of Nebraska (Lincoln, NE), Roswell Museum and Art Center (NM), Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College (Saratoga Springs, NY), and Blanton Museum of Art at University of Texas (Austin, TX). Allan Graham was born in San Francisco, CA. He studied at the University of New Mexico, San Francisco Art Institute and San Jose State University and was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts in 1985 and a Pollock Krasner grant in 2012. He currently lives and works in New Mexico.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.