whitehot | May 2009, Paul Graham @ MoMA
Paul Graham, Las Vegas, 2005, from the series a shimmer of possibility, pigmented inkjet print
Paul Graham: a shimmer of possibility at The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019
February 4 through May 18, 2009
Whether we choose to see it or not, within even the most seemingly dull moments there lies a certain curiosity. Using the vast diversity of America as his canvas, British photographer Paul Graham's current exhibition, a shimmer of possibility, brings forth the wondrous peculiarities and possibilities that exist within our everyday lives. The show is comprised of a series of photographs the artist took during a dozen or so trips across America from 2004 to 2006. Setting all expectations aside, Graham traveled across the country without a specific idea of what it was he wanted to see, or furthermore, what it was he actually would see. Instead, he turned over the reigns to his own curiosity, stopping whenever someone or something caught his eye along the way. The journey in its entirety resides in twelve rainbow-colored volumes spanning Graham’s travels from start to finish. Forty-nine of these pigmented inkjet prints are currently on display at the MoMA, showcasing his time spent in New Orleans, Texas, California, Las Vegas, and Pittsburgh.
Along with Graham’s ability to create a cohesive series of photos without a prior vision in mind, another element which makes Graham’s outlook on America particularly intriguing is the fact that he himself is not American. Rather than latching onto pre-existing stereotypes of America and its citizens, Graham offers us a remarkably unassuming view of the “American Dream” through a series of vignette-like narratives. Graham illustrates this notion especially well through the use of deeply-imbedded metaphors and well-constructed compositions. In a photo entitled California, 2006, Graham’s subject is a man’s hand clutching a Styrofoam cup. By only zooming in on the man’s hand and cup, the viewer’s focus is consumed in discerning whether the cup is half-empty or half-full. In the context of the exhibition in its entirety, it is this sort of ambivalence which causes us not only to question the contents of the cup, but more significantly, the contents of life in America as a whole.
Graham approaches his subjects with almost childlike curiosity. Rather than pass judgment Graham simply captures the possibilities that exist within any given moment. Graham’s intimate portrayal of the typically mundane provides a privileged glimpse into the lives of others. In a string of photos entitled New Orleans (Woman Eating) 2004, an African American woman with frizzy, bright orange hair stares out into a parking lot with an intimidating snarl on her face. Although we cannot see what she is looking at, her expression divulges discontent with her surroundings. In the next image she proceeds to devour a pile of fried chicken, the orange grease sticking to her fingers. In the following shots we see a garbage can which reads: “Clean team”, a highly ironic message considering the mess of chicken bones, dirty napkins, and soda cans which are sprawled all over the asphalt.
Graham further examines the inherent hypocrisy existent within “the land of opportunity”, in his Las Vegas, 2005 photographs. Here, a washed-up, flower-selling hippie who wears wrinkles well beyond his years is pictured standing on a street corner with a handful of roses and a startled expression. The resolution of the photo has been left dark and true to life as it is nighttime, and the neon blur of city lights blends into the darkness surrounding him. Two portraits show both infinite loss and longing in his eyes, for what we can only wonder. Another photo reveals a number of cuts across the man’s inner wrist, bringing about speculations of self-mutilation, and furthering the enigma. By exploring the human condition right down to its inner core, along with how we as humans interact with the world around us, Graham not only takes on the role of photographer, but as sociologist as well.
A shimmer of possibility is unequivocally reflective of life in-it-of-itself. Graham’s images are absolutely realistic—there is certainly no photo-shopping or airbrushing to be found here. In a series entitled San Francisco, 2005, a sun-burnt, overweight-man in his sixties with peeling skin, takes refuge from the sun against a shady brick wall. Cigarette butts and crushed beer cans litter the gravel by his feet, and a pile of soiled underwear and socks lie beside him. Although it is only 11:15 in the morning,-- as is shown on the man’s wrist watch-- his exhausted, pained expression certainly does not depict a man who is just getting started with his day. He braces himself against the wall with one hand, and takes a long drag from his cigarette with the other, upon which he wears a tarnished gold wedding band. In examining the portrait Graham presents us with, we cannot help but wonder what it is that this weathered man is truly bracing himself for; is it really just the sun he is hiding away from, or is it actually something more?
The lingering paradox within a shimmer of possibility continues on throughout the exhibit, whether it is within the solitude a of a young girl playing with her toys on the sidewalk of an empty street in California, the jaded expressions of disenchanted teenagers gathered on a New Orleans street corner, a maintenance man pushing a rusty lawnmower in the early morning rain by a Pittsburgh highway, or a grungy man from California, eating his burger crouched outside of a fast food restaurant under a glaring sign which tells us about “No Exceptions”.
By juxtaposing flickers of hope alongside those of despair--and, at times sorrow, Graham shows us that shimmers of possibility continue to manifest themselves. In the end, it is Graham’s unique narratives complete with all of their sociological underpinnings that make this exhibition so mesmerizing. As an artist, Graham has demonstrated that he is not concerned with common aesthetics and ostentatious beauty. Instead, Graham has presented us with a thorough display of the unconventional beauty which innately exists alongside the ugliness of not only what it means to be an American, but more importantly, what it universally means to be human. Rather than provide us with answers, Graham is the one who asks the questions, leaving us to perpetually ask ourselves-- “what does this photo tell me?”
A shimmer of possibility, which has previously exhibited in London, Madrid, Brussels, Paris, and Berlin, is showing at MoMA through May 18th. This exhibition has been organized by Susan Kismaric, Curator of the Department of Photography.
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Allison Ioli is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has previously appeared in Roux Magazine and the Cooper Point Journal. She holds a B.A. in Art History from The Evergreen State College, and has also studied at the Athens Centre in Athens, Greece and the S.A.C.I. Centre in Florence, Italy. Currently, Allison is working on an M.A. in Art History, Criticism & Conservation at the City University of New York, Hunter College.
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