Language Becomes Aesthetic

An 'is' is a 'why' in a minefield of art and words at TMA.

Looking at reproductions of Allan Graham's artwork in an exhibition catalog, I didn't expect to like it. A bunch of canvases covered with squiggly lines did not look promising. When I read that the man called one of his series "UFO" and named himself "Toadhouse," I told myself it didn't matter because I had to go. Graham's Life Would Be A Shame Left To Description is the 16th exhibition in the Tucson Museum of Art's large annual "Contemporary Southwest Images: The Stonewall Foundation Series."

Some art simply doesn't reproduce well because it is meant to be experienced, and I discovered that Allan Graham's work falls into that category. What look like squiggly lines on the reproductions are actually tiny words written in graphite. Words or sometimes numerals written over and over create the forms on the canvases. Typically, Graham uses two or three words per canvas. Technically, Graham has learned to use the shapes of the letters and the clustering of the words to create density and even a sense of motion as adeptly as an artist using standard methods could.

Graham's exhibition, which was curated by Julie Sasse, TMA's curator of contemporary art, is displayed in three galleries and on a descending ramp. The effect of Graham's work is cumulative. His most recent works from the series "Cosmo-logical" are displayed in the first gallery. The stark contrast between the black letters and white background gives these pieces an intellectual air that keeps them from moving beyond formal abstractions.

The works in the second and third galleries from Graham's "UFO" series are rendered on canvases covered with multiple layers of oil paint in warm grays. The irony is that such large canvases covered with text can be so quiet. The second gallery, like the first, has a brass bell sitting in the center of the room. The bell, which is not rung, is a reminder of silence in rooms disturbed by the conversations of viewers and the squawking radio of museum security guards.

In each artwork, different forms created with one word or one numeral interact with a background created with a different word or numeral. The underlined words in the titles are used as text for the artwork. In "silence passing through an etc shower" a disc form (reminiscent of a UFO) composed of the word "silence" floats in a mottled background created by the word "etc."

In "mind approaching three binary clusters in a zero universe" the disk forms created from the word "mind" and the circles created from the numeral "2" gather on a field created from the numeral "0." The image has a surprising and appealing sense of motion as veins of words spread out from the circles of 2s.

These literal descriptions do not capture the meditative quality of the works any better than reproductions capture the images. These are artworks that prompt one to spend time with them, to sit quietly on a bench in a museum with silent bells. What such moments will bring will be different for everyone. Exhibition catalog essayist Gus Blaisdell writes of the "UFO" series in terms of the mystical poet William Blake, and Blaisdell places all of Graham's work in the context of Zen Buddhism and Western philosophers.

Looking at Graham's artwork involves movement. One must stand close to decipher the words used to create the forms, and then one must back into the room to see the forms on the large canvases. That necessary motion reflects Graham's interest in the conjunction of text, image and meaning. In her exhibition catalog essay, Sasse cites the relationship between Graham's work and poets of the 1950s' concrete poetry movement. Language poets have continued that exploration for the last three decades.

As they are set up, the titles of Graham's pieces act as lines of poetry, sometimes individually, sometimes collectively. Titles from the five works in the second gallery include "why forming in an is universe," "memory and meaning in a mind field" and "tongue pursuing lips in a soft universe." Graham's use of language is not always successful, but the images do transcend those shortcomings. For example, the visual interplay of words, numerals and motion in "mind approaching three binary clusters in a zero universe" is powerful despite the pseudo-scientific name.

So why does Graham call himself Toadhouse? According to the exhibition catalog, Graham and his son Jess dug a subterranean, kiva-style pit for meditation in 1990. After scores of toads were attracted to the location, Graham named it "toad house." When he discovered that in Zen poetry the toad is a metaphor for the mind, he gave the meditation space a more spiritual name: "mind house." In the Zen tradition of not taking oneself too seriously, Graham himself assumed the pseudonym "Toadhouse" for his writing and some of his art. Graham has never seen a UFO, and his "UFO" series is a metaphor for freeing the mind. He signed the "UFO" images with his ironic Toadhouse moniker "TH," even though metaphysics and spirituality inspired the series.