Aug. 03, 2005 - Issue #511: John Prine
Let’s hear it for the boys
Jeffery Graham delves into the unknowable mind of the teenage boy in Almost
I know pretty well everything I ever wanted to know about teenage girls, and then some; their incessant chatter over the phone fills our household daily. But it’s not just due to the fact that that girls, like my daughters, have the uncanny ability to squeeze every word out of a little problem; it’s also that they have been probed, prodded and analyzed in countless bestsellers that stack library shelves. Girls are open books, literally and figuratively. Meanwhile, the mind of an adolescent boy is one of life’s unsolved mysteries. Many teen boys are taciturn—there is little hope of an intimate bearing of souls in their company, where even getting a hello out of them can be a challenge. Boys grow into men, though, and strangely, in a few years they become friendly, communicative and perfectly normal. So, what happened in those dark teen years? Jeffrey Graham, in his show Almost Lovely: The beach, the pose, meat and toes: being sidetracked provides us with the answer to this inscrutable riddle with eloquence, humor and brazen honesty.
At first glance, Graham’s show looks like a hoard of boys got into the gallery overnight and turned this high-brow, elegant space into a playroom. There are wheels to turn, gadgets that clatter, lights that turn on, and little hideaways to enter. Even the media labels read like a funky version of Toys-R-Us: rubber foot, broom, shoes, zebra fabric, plastic sword, and the like. It all just makes you want to sit on the ground and play. That is just the kind of feeling Graham was after. In this work he is not into painterly finesse or historical pretense—even if he does have a lot of art history under his belt and this show is his master’s thesis.
“In this show I am dealing with low art, low imagery, things that are not associated with high culture,” explains Graham, who quite literally put himself into the mind of a child at play. “I allowed myself to be innocent. I allowed confusion, haphazardness, releasing control.”
But, as you rummage through Graham’s playroom a few uncomfortably adult details begin to emerge like the ominous piano crescendo in a horror movie. For instance, you see that an innocent-looking a boy in the throes of his first dance is almost smothered in his partner’s over-ripe cleavage; her face lights up like a halo as you approach. Another boy displays his muscles while two women’s gloves hover above him. They dangle like flaccid phalluses, or like a protective gesture of a mother. You are never sure. Whatever the answer, the games in this room soon loose their innocence and become filled with innuendos of unfulfilled sexual urges and threats of powerlessness—all amidst cartoons and toy trucks.
“I wanted to deal with male identity; with the perspective of a teen moving from adolescence to adulthood,” explains Graham. “My nephew recently died. The tragedy of it is that he never really moved into adulthood.” This momentous event almost forced 42-year-old Graham to relive his own entry into adulthood. “The show is a way to deal with it, it’s re-experiencing it, to try to understand it.”
As Graham delved into his past, his art began to flow like dreams that revive dimmed memories. For instance, Graham recalled vividly how he, like his nephew and like most boys, was bullied on the playground. “There is a need for males to have pecking order,” explains Graham. Establishing that order is a normal rite of passage, and everybody goes through it, he adds matter-of-factly. In “Punch-wood” he visualizes the blows with a gut-wrenching jolt. His sculpture is a log shaped like a massive elbow; at the end of it is a jutting fist. Graham explains that a punch to the face sounds like hitting wood.
As each aspect of the playful, fun-loving, sound-making installation reveals its dark underpinning, you begin to feel that you have entered right into the mind an adolescent boy, into those dim alleys and crevices of boy’s psyche that seemed forever closed. The threat of losing control, of powerlessness looms everywhere—like a monster that hides beneath your bed. But Graham looks at my dismay with a dismissive shrug. “Control is a part of male identity,” he says. “Maybe it’s a part of our baggage, things we have to carry with us. It’s all an illusion; it’s about how we project ourselves.”
Letting go of that illusion became for Graham the essence of this show. To understand his nephew’s and his own adolescence, he had to let go, to lose himself in play once again. “I look at these as sketching out ideas. It’s like working out dreams by remembering them,” he explains. “You are renewed and transformed in the process of remembering them.” V
Almost Lovely: The beach, the pose, meat, and toes: being sidetracked
By Jeffery Graham • FAB Gallery • U of A Fine Arts Building • To Aug 27
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