May 19, 2008

Rodney Graham examines modernist myths and moments in Morris Louis tableau

Rodney Graham' show at 303 Gallery (loathed by bloggers for their "no photography allowed" policy) consists of drip paintings styled in the manner of Morris Louis, and a huge studio photograph in which Graham recreates the fictional livingroom where the paintings were created. In The Washington Post, Blake Gopnik describes the image. "The photo shows a 50-something man in blue silk pajamas -- Graham himself, recognizable from his appearances in many other works -- standing in the middle of an elegant modern living room while he pours paint onto a cream-colored canvas. The piece is a nearly perfect distillation of the myth of Louis, which includes the crucial fact that he poured his massive "stain" paintings in his suburban living room in Chevy Chase, without, it's said, leaving much mess behind. In Graham's version of the myth, carefully spread newspapers protect the living room's parquet floor while the handsome artist -- Louis was known to be the subject of his female students' crushes -- stands immaculate among his paints. The room itself, carefully staged in a photo studio in Vancouver, is a stunning evocation of the best of postwar design. It's got a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired flagstone fireplace, a cedar-lath cathedral ceiling, sliding garden doors in floor-to-ceiling glass, walnut veneer walls and custom shelving done in perfect Danish-modern style. Its accessories are also absolutely right: a vintage Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder as well as art books by the big names of the day, such as Erwin Panofsky and John Russell. (The absence of works by Clement Greenberg, Louis's mentor and the most famous critic of that time, is notable.) The artist's pigments sit in period household vessels such as Revere Ware pots, with their trademark copper bottoms, and Tupperware bowls in 1960s green and pink; a cigarette dangles from his lips, Brat Pack style. (Louis died of lung cancer in 1962.) Even the newspaper on the floor is a legible facsimile of the edition from Nov. 8, 1962 -- two days old by the date of the depicted scene, and therefore ready to do dropcloth duty.

"The whole thing stands as a re-imagining of a crucial moment in history. It's like all those pictures that try to re-create the instant of the Annunciation. And like such pictures, the goal isn't so much strict historical accuracy as narrative power. What matters isn't how perfectly they capture the past but how well they help us enter it. We can be convinced by Graham's imaginary scene, even as we realize that Louis's own living room couldn't have been anywhere as grand as the one in Graham's photo, and the abstract picture that its artist paints is not so much a perfect Louis painting as a generic stand-in for one." Read more.

"Rodney Graham: The Gifted Amateur," 303 Gallery, New York, NY. Through June 8.

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