Paul Graham: Does Yellow Run Forever? @Pace and Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 color photographs, alternately framed in white/gold and unmatted, and hung against white walls at different heights (from floor level to above eye level) in a series of four interconnected gallery spaces (11 walls). The prints are a mix of pigment prints and c-prints mounted on Plexiglas (15 pigment prints, 5 c-prints), made between 2011 and 2014; the show includes 1 triptych and 1 diptych (all pigment prints). Physical sizes range from as small as 32 x 43 inches to as large as 63 ½ x 96 inches, and the prints are available in editions of 5+2AP. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by MACK Books (here); it is an austere 96-page hardcover catalog (7 7/8 x 5 5/8), with 31 color plates and no essay, priced at $50. This show has been jointly organized by Pace and Pace/MacGill, and is on view at the Pace space on West 25th Street; it is not on view at the Pace/MacGill space on East 57th Street. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: To display photographs of rainbows in a prominent  New York gallery, an artist today had better have a good explanation. Paul Graham never provides one in this sweet, nervy, if unduly hermetic show, but he has enough confidence in himself to make pictures of this Romantic cliché in the belief that we will follow the arc of his thought wherever it leads and ultimately feel rewarded.

Before the publication of A Shimmer of Possibility in 2007, he spoke of a wish to do with photographs what Chekhov did with words: to construct stories about ordinary people out of familiar elements, adhering to the tenets of realism while altering our preconceptions of its boundaries.

Does Yellow Run Forever? (a candidate for worst title of the year) seems to be asking us to fashion a love story from three ostensibly unrelated parts. The eleven different rainbows constitute the largest group of pictures here. Five portraits of his partner, Senami, asleep in bed, and four urban landscapes of pawnshop facades, emblazoned with signs advertising that they buy gold, are the other two subjects.

Each subject was photographed in a distinct place and style. The rainbows were observed in Ireland and all have wild, outdoor settings packed with clouds, mist, greenery, rocky hills. In one Claudean landscape a tree protrudes into the foreground beside a slate-gray body of water.

In the portraits of Senami, taken during a 2011 trip to New Zealand, she is covered in brightly colored sheets or a blanket, her dark face and arms the only visible parts of her. The rooms are plain, windowless, and she is angled into one or another corner. The pawnshops are pictured head-on. All are located in the outer boroughs of New York City, where the British-born Graham now lives.

How we choose to edit these three groups of pictures into a narrative is up to us. Graham offers no manual. The duality of yellow may be one theme. It represents both the “natural” warmth of the sun’s energy and, in a darker hue, the “crass” materialist substance of gold. As such, we can sense here the adventurous life of an artist invited to travel the world is engaged in a Wagnerian struggle with the responsibilities and burden of making a living back home in Manhattan.

Rainbows are full of symbolic resonance (they appear after the storm, signaling its end) and scientific wonder. Ethereal embodiments of the color spectrum, they depend on two properties of light, reflection and refraction, and were of special interest to Descartes and Newton, as well as the scholar-poet Goethe. They are also dazzling meteorological events—and sufficiently rare, like gold—that for seconds or minutes they can turn the head of almost anyone, no matter how rushed or jaded, toward the heaven. Like photographs, rainbows are both commonplace and deeply magical.

It is brave of Graham to gamble on these responses from us. It is also borderline foolhardy, as rainbows have been thoroughly exploited to make us feel good about dozens of commercial products, everything from Lucky Charms to Ben & Jerry’s discontinued ice-cream flavor Chubby Hubby. The rainbow is now politicized, as the symbol of gay marriage, not to mention as the name for Greenpeace’s environmental attack yacht and for Jesse Jackson’s defunct presidential organization. Maybe the only subjects that Graham might have chosen that would be riskier would be sunsets and unicorns.

What saves him in this case is the absence of irony and the space he has left around the pictures for interpretation. He wants to reclaim rainbows from their debased status and he almost succeeds because they aren’t the most precious subject of these pictures. Senami is. The show revolves around her sleeping head, leaving us to ask: Is she dreaming these images? Or is he? Or are we?

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $35000 to $65000 each. Graham’s work has surprisingly little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Paul Graham, Pace Gallery, Pace/MacGill Gallery, MACK

5 comments

  1. Pete /

    Nice write up, although awarding one star seems a bit mean to me.

    PG is not everyone’s cup of tea (wahey!) but the rainbow arc of his career has always produced work worthy of a long, considered look. He’s unique for an old-school sincerity; the blending of the personal and the political within a passion for the medium and finding out what mysteries it still offers.

    Some of these qualities almost certainly marginalise him, he’s a ‘photographer’ rather than the ‘artist’ he probably craves to be. And yes, there is still often a clear distinction. Maybe one day there won’t be, who knows.

    I really like the contrast here between the flat frontal topographic/Bauhaus style exterior photos and the interior corners with their flowing fabric colours, perhaps reminscent of his late 1980’s pics of young people lounging on sofas watching telly.

    http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/P/P77/P77635_10.jpg

    : )

  2. Pete /

    Topographic/Dusseldorf, not Bauhaus!

  3. Richard B. Woodward /

    I am a longtime admirer of Graham because, as you say, he is Old School (no Photoshop or constructed images) but wants
    to pull documentary photography out of its doldrums. I can’t think of another artist who would have dared to build a show out of pictures of rainbows. If “Does Yellow Run Forever?” had the same bouncy dimensions as “A Shimmer of Possibility” or
    “The Present,” I would have rated it more highly.

  4. Pete Cutler /

    “The same bouncy dimensions”? not entirely sure what you mean by that, but having viewed the exhibition twice, and purchased the book, this work seems to touch upon the dimensions of love, (his partner Senami, asleep); hope against reality (the dreamer vs tawdry Gold shops); the magical against the real (the myths of Rainbows and Gold); the pursuit of wealth or love or wonder. That’s enough ‘bouncy dimensions’ for me!

    Yes, Rainbows are obviously cliches, but Mr Graham has shown himself consistently interested in utilizing and refreshing cliched subjects and photographic tropes in the past: unemployment, the Northern Irish conflict, nightclub revelers, not to mention the recent works re-imagining the transcontinental US journey (‘A Shimmer of Possibility’) and New York street photography with ‘The Present’. All cliched topics for sure, but each reinvented wonderfully.

    I found this exhibition quite magical in its ability to place three simple subjects together, some of which are knowingly cliched, and create something that speaks about love and hope. The alchemy of good art. But should you wish to disregard all that, the photographs of his sleeping partner and some of the Rainbows are stunning images.

    For me as a photo educator, Mr Graham has created works that rank amongst the most exciting out there, and the students I deal with nearly all list him and/or Robert Frank as their biggest influence. To have the bravery to take risks like this, and (in my opinion) pull it off beautifully, is seriously admirable. To do so consistently, is nothing less than remarkable. Compared to the Dusseldorfians, trapped on the fly paper of the Becher house style (Hofer, Struth, Gursky, etc.) Graham has become the standard bearer for engaged, thought provoking photography, that consistently surprises, at this point in time. To give this show just 1 star is one of the oddest decisions I have read in aeons.

  5. Richard B. Woodward /

    I am happy to learn that Paul Graham is revered by your students. He’s an excellent role model in the photographic values he espouses and the risks he takes with his projects.

    When I wrote that his new show was not as “bouncy” as previous ones, I meant that it was not as elastic in the kinds
    of pictures it allowed. This rigidity is clearly deliberate.
    He seems to be trying to see if he can sing a love song (if I may change metaphors) in only three repeated notes: rainbows, woman sleeping, NYC pawnshops. This self-imposed restriction on his pictorial range hampers what can be expressed, especially as two of those notes (rainbows and woman sleeping) are inherently sweet—too sweet, for my taste. To overcompensate for his minimalist/reductionist decision, he has hung the pictures in the gallery at various heights, as if that would somehow create more visual/musical variety. The photographs simply aren’t strong or original enough to bear that much pressure.

    As for stars, those are the limitations we critics have to live with on this site. If I were allowed more “bounce,” I would have given “Does Yellow Run Forever?” one and a half stars.
    I appreciate reading your reasons for rating it higher. My esteemed colleague Loring Knoblauch gave Marco Breuer’s new show two stars when I would have given it only one; he bestowed two stars on Justine Kurland’s show, when I would have granted it a full three. Civilized disagreement is fine and healthy.

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