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
The words 'shimmer' and 'possibility' have undeniably positive connotations; brought together in the title of Paul Graham’s current exhibition at the MoMA, they suggest wonder, opportunity and hope. Here, the title seems to contradict the content. The photos are richly textured, touching and provocative, but 'hopeful' is not among the adjectives best use to describe them. Rather, the show is marked by a pensive melancholy. The series California (2006) in particular, is heartbreaking; it depicts a chubby girl of eight or ten sitting alone on a sidewalk, eating McDonald's and lining up her toys as if to sell them off to any given passersby – of which there are none. It is, initially, very difficult to find the shimmer of possibility in this otherwise beautifully rendered collection.
The show is comprised of nine photographic series taken by Graham on his travels throughout the United States. The photos are gritty, candid and unflinching, yet a certain tenderness pervades. Like the famed playwright Anton Chekhov, Graham takes banal moments and imbues them with prismatic intrigue. The key difference here is that Chekhov focused mainly on bourgeois ennui (a hum-drum afternoon in the drawing room, perhaps), while Graham delves into the daily grind of the masses. His work takes routine, unglamorous moments and injects them with a hint of mystery. Perhaps this mystery is the shimmer of possibility to which Graham refers.
It’s difficult not to wonder, though, if there is some inevitable element of exploitation in creating art out people’s suffering. How is the exploitative differentiated from the real? Was Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives exploitative, or rather deeply political – a call for reform and a denunciation of capitalism’s dark underbelly? To some extent, Graham is taking a similar approach. Take, for example, the second photo thread of California. Its subject huddles by the trash while a sign above him gleefully heralds the arrival of ciabatta bread at Jack-in-the-Box. Good news for some, perhaps, but the advertisement only seems to mock his pain, and we are thus exposed to the flip-side of fortune. Graham is not a photo-journalist, per se. Rather than explicitly protesting an unjust reality, his work quietly confronts us with the real. Often called 'filmic haiku,' it presents less an indictment than an earnest 'showing' of what might otherwise go un-shown.
In a recent press release, curator Susan Kisamric writes: “The aspects of American life that Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Joel Sternfeld identified 80, 50, and 30 years ago—the embattled contrasts, the racism and economic disparity, the consumers, the loneliness, the bad architecture, the disenfranchised—are also present in a shimmer of possibility, but Graham’s attention deflects their predictable impact on us, so that instead of only recoiling at a problem we feel we can’t do anything about, we let our attention be drawn to the normalcy of life and the small pleasures people experience.”
These pleasures are indeed small. In New Orleans (Woman Eating) (2004), a disheveled woman eats chicken from a styrofoam container, her fingers greasy from the food. She seems to glance about warily as though someone might take it from her. But small pleasures are not entirely without power to transform. In another series, a pot-bellied man in a bold-print shirt smokes a cigarette beside a cement wall. The last frame redeems this otherwise bleak series; the subject touches his chest and gazes into the distance in what might be termed ‘earnest amusement’. Perhaps he has seen something that captures his imagination. Even more inspiring is Texas (2005), wherein a man and a teenage girl wearing an all-star team jersey play basketball in the street at dusk. One can easily imagine she is a talented young athlete working towards a college scholarship.
There is an unsettling contradiction inherent in viewing Graham's photographs in a world-renowned establishment. The man outside the Jack-in-the-Box could likely not afford admission to the gallery. Where is the shimmer of possibility in his filmic haiku? What portion of Graham's proceeds will he enjoy? Stated more generally, what does it mean to make high art out of those who are so far removed from it? As art enthusiasts and museum-goers, we might benefit from further reflection on questions like these. And here, indeed, is a shimmer of possibility.
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Chloe Liederman is a writer in New York