AT THE FOOT OF THE LADDER
Patrik Graham’s art and its conditions
The end is where we start from. T. S. Eliot
Where does art begin? Patrik Graham’s creative practice often centres on the human body: our most individual and most universal facet. His portraits painted in the vein of the old masters centre on faithful depiction and the potency of colour. His sculptures, on the other hand, take their own convoluted course, like a defiant gesture to academic training. Here, creating is about a breaking down of acquired knowledge. Setting off into an unknown yet obvious place. A playful disregard for the boundaries of the sovereign craft.
Two weeks in 2019, Graham gave performances in a shabby gallery space near the famous store Canal Plastics Center in New York. Twice a day, he ascended a ladder and dropped his clay self-portraits from varying heights onto the floor. The remains, the damaged, cracked, deformed sculpted heads, were left to dry. Some were fired. Others were glazed or cast in bronze. The latest have been brought to life in glass.
Underlying all these varying results, where every shape and colour is unique, is the artist’s curiosity and an intense desire to experiment. The different materials, each with their own properties, have enabled a metamorphosis for the crashed sculptures – rebirth and the ability, like Phoenix, to rise from the ashes.
Performance is an art that exists while in progress. In that moment, what happens within the artist is as relevant as what goes on outside. A video recording shows how Graham hurls his works to the floor. He is totally absorbed. He prepares as one prepares for the irrevocable. In that moment, when the abyss opens and gravity takes over, Graham is forced to separate from himself. The split second when the original shape is deformed is like a poetic metaphor for life and for how suddenly it can collapse if the ground is pulled out from under it. To tumble and then rise again. Falling seven times and rising eight... That is also a way of being reconciled with the unpredictability of one’s Self (and art). In this performative act, Graham is closer to Marina Abramović and her vulnerable art than to Auguste Rodin’s classical, thinking heads.
Patrik Graham’s sculptures are the fruit of a process he controls and plans and then intentionally lets go of. This artistic dramaturgy emulates life’s own. To some extent, we can drive ourselves onwards. In the end, however, humanity is inescapably subject to the unforeseeable. As the historian of ideas Sven-Eric Liedman so aptly puts it: “It is fantastically serendipitous that we even exist at all.”
Among the multitude of facial expressions that spontaneously arise in Graham’s squashed sculptures, there is no artifice, posing or pretence. The art is in the unexpected. The mimicry is as authentic as unknown faces. Like a sudden cry of pain, an impulsive laugh or an instinctive grimace. The body’s deformations appear comical, tragic, tender and beautiful. One face holds countless others. We are reminded of the clown Auguste in Henry Miller’s brilliant novella The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, who tells us of the price of creativity and teaches us to laugh at ourselves.
Sometimes, the original clay piece is so radically transformed that the familiar features become an unknown landscape even to the artist himself, where the Self is both enhanced and ceases to be. We wear our face like an enigma, as the photographer Gisèle Freund writes. Those who see these works without knowing who they represent, will make this appearance their own. For Graham’s sculptures portray humanity as it is: forever in the making, in evolution, struggling between order and chaos, between determined laws and astonishing randomness. The moods and feelings they cause relate to our existential condition. In our world, where most things are charted and so little is mastered, we remain a mystery to ourselves.
Perhaps that is why the self-portrait is such an infinitely rich and remarkable artistic genre. Morphing stylistically, the motif has nevertheless survived the aesthetic revolutions over the centuries. What is it about our body that is so captivating? What drove Rembrandt, Dürer, Kahlo, Schjerfbeck, Munch and Giacometti to constantly return to their own physiognomy?
The pragmatic answer, of course, is that they had immediate access to themselves. But is that the whole reason? What is a self-portrait, and for whom? “I cannot write myself,” says Roland Barthes. Is it possible to portray oneself? The urge to make a self-portrait seems to stem from never being able to see oneself from the outside. We are never quite visible to ourselves, not even in a mirror. “Who am I?” we ask. And art responds immediately: “You are a solution to your own secret. ”
The “physicality” of the sculptures flows onto the paper, when Graham translates them into suggestive charcoal drawings. The monochrome backgrounds in classic white or avant-garde pink and blue evade interpretation. It requires technical skill to negotiate the shifting texture of the paper in the right way. The carbon traces seemingly vibrate across the rough surfaces. Lighted from underneath, the drawings resemble watercolours. The cracks and flaws in the sculptures transform into wrinkles and scars.
Patrik Graham’s works embody the creative dilemma: being outside and inside oneself. The artist must defamiliarise (a term coined by the Russian formalists) and detach from the Self. But this involves looking inwards. As Blaise Pascal writes in Thoughts, “he will perhaps think that here is the extremest diminutive in nature. Then I will open before him therein a new abyss.”
Neither the sculptures nor the charcoal drawings contain any clues that give them a context. Here, time flows through the body as though there were no time. The patina makes the art older than it is. The experimental shape makes it timeless and enigmatically vague. The artist takes a leap out of himself and his own time. Past and future merge.
A text about art is always overshadowed by the work itself. The words relate to something that should hardly be articulated in words. What makes Patrik Graham’s art so intriguingly evasive is that it is both open and closed, defined and dissolved, intentional and free. It embraces both creative light and destructive darkness, shadows of sorrow and sparks of joy. One and the same core engenders something new every time. The artist does not guard his discovery. As soon as he has created it, the work of art assumes its own life.