Paul Graham, The Seasons @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A total of 32 color photographs in two rooms. In the main western gallery are 6 large pigment ink prints mounted on dibond; 5 of the 6 are dated 2018 with one dated 2017. All are of identical size (57 ¾ x 77 1/8 inches.) In the smaller eastern gallery are 26 pigment ink prints with deep Diasec mounts. All are dated 2005 and of identical size (10 5/8 x 8 1/8 x 1 ¼ inches.) All the 32 prints are issued in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Paul Graham likes a challenge. For the last 30 years, he has chosen some of the most unpromising subjects he could find and sought to turn them into a thoughtful experience for his audience. Whether regarding the auto-stops and grassy strips along the A1 in Great Britain, a woman eating fast food chicken in New Orleans, a man mowing the lawn at a motel in Pittsburgh, the facades of New York pawn shops, or the curtains of a Paris hotel room, he does not like to photograph things that easily yield distinctive moments. Like one of his role models, Robert Adams, he prefers sequences and has long been suspicious that photographers should wait for epiphanies. “Boredom is part of my work,” he once said. “I accept it and embrace it.” Decisive moments are rare in his oeuvre because any moment contains, as he titled one of his series, a “shimmer of possibility.”

The Seasons is another example of his penchant for material so obdurate in its banality that most of his peers would ignore it, thinking they couldn’t do much to mold it into compelling pictures. The six large photographs, spaced far apart on the walls, depict the facades and sidewalks of New York banks on Park Avenue—capitalism in its most  pure and faceless form.

The series was inspired by Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s paintings of the same name, canonical works of art that are scattered in museum collections but have become internationally beloved through reproductions. (Only 5 survive and art historians debate if he painted 6 or 12 canvases for his wealthy Antwerp patron, Niclaes Jonghelinck.) By citing the 16th century “peasant” artist as his role model, Graham is using the contrast between then and now to leverage meaning. The titles pair painting and photograph—EARLY SUMMER (Haymaking), Wells Fargo, 280 Park Ave., 2018 or EARLY SPRING (The Gloomy Day), Charles Schwab, 330 Park Ave., 2018—and encourage us to ponder the conceptual space between them.  

Brueghel’s scenes feature anonymous laborers in the fields or in farmyards—scything or bundling wheat, butchering an animal, carrying water or wood. The action is characterized by swirling movements, sinuous lines and very few sharp ones, the dynamism of bodies seriously at work or at leisure. Except for the snowy landscape of winter, the palette is dominated by earthy browns and greens.

Graham’s scenes are ostensibly worlds apart. Whereas the Dutch paintings take us deep into the landscapes of the Netherlands, out to the horizon, the photographs have almost no depth of field, the horizons blocked by the upright steel skyscrapers. In four of the six views, the position of the camera emphasizes the aggressive sharp corners of the boxlike buildings, whose architecture is modernist steel and glass, typical of midtown Manhattan (and most downtowns everywhere.) Instead of manual laborers, we see office workers on their phones; they may be employees lingering on their lunch hour or just pedestrians passing through. The palette is mainly slate gray, whether during a rain storm or not, with a few livelier bits, such as a yellow dress, a cherry tree in bloom, golden lobby lighting, the stars and stripes of the American flag, or the soothing corporate colors of Citibank and Bank of America.

All of these are “street photographs” in the traditional sense: the figures are anonymous, the scenarios unstaged and fleeting. According to the Pace press release, Graham shot everything with a handheld camera and exposed for 1/1000th of a second. In their room-filling scale and sheer ordinariness, the prints in The Seasons are reminiscent of those in The Present, his 2012 show at Pace/MacGill (reviewed here). Both are attempts to commemorate moments that in any other context would be forgotten by everyone involved, including the photographer, and without wider importance except as photographs.

Graham clearly wants to make a historical point by asking us to think about the differences between his color photographs of U.S. banks and paintings of peasant laborers in 16th century Northern Europe. Like the late Allan Sekula, he is trying to grapple with the enormity of capitalism—to contrast the economic system of the Renaissance, only recently emerged from feudalism, with the one that rules the planet now. The series is an attempt to photograph the unphotographable, and thus in some ways an exercise in frustration. Looking at these bank buildings from the street, Graham underlines how little their facades reveal about their operations and objectives. They are institutions that facilitate the flow of money on a global scale, a flow invisible to the prying eye of a photographer, and to anyone outside the corporate hierarchy (and even to some inside it.) Despite the resistance of banks to the camera’s inquiry, both their shadowy motives and their necessary role within the mechanism of worldwide exchange, Graham notes that outdoor weather and seasonal change are still at work and may be even more relentless. On the concrete island of 21st century Manhattan, rain glistens the sidewalks, trees bloom in tiny plots at street corners. These glints of renewal in The Seasons, like the rainbows in Does Yellow Run Forever? (reviewed here), offer the eye refreshment in a desert and a longer scale of time than humans can contemplate.

The smaller gallery presents Sightless, a series he finished in 2005 but never showed. Twenty-six identically sized close-up portraits of nameless individuals are “caught” while walking along 42nd Street, a horizontal slice of Manhattan where a broad spectrum of humanity (locals and tourists alike) is invariably on parade. They are seen with eyes closed or lowered, temporarily blinded. The expressions may be the result of intense afternoon sunlight or a transported response to whatever they are listening to on their phones. We don’t know why and Graham doesn’t inquire.

The series will remind many viewers of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s 42nd St. (1997), Harry Callahan’s urban street portraits from the 1950s and ‘60s, and Ray Metkzer’s Hotel Terminus and City Whispers (mid-1960s). Graham also may have been thinking about certain iconic portraits by Gerhard Richter, such as Reader (1994) and Betty (1988.)

Sightless is another attempt to tease embers of drama from a single figure, as in Graham’s Television Portraits (1986-88), End of an Age (1996-98) and Does Yellow Run Forever? (2006-14) and to address metaphorical blindness, as in American Night (1988-90.)

One of Graham’s ongoing concerns has been interiority, the challenge of conveying in an instant the solace or tedium of being alone in one’s thoughts. Sightless is a distillation of these themes. The Plexi mounts complement the almost indented chiaroscuro on the faces of the pedestrians. It wouldn’t surprise me if Graham, who in the last decade has on occasion presented his large prints as ambitious installations, moved even further in a direction that explored the on-again, off-again relationship between photography and sculpture.

Collector’s POV: Prints in The Seasons series are priced at $60000 apiece, while those in Sightless are $8000 each. Graham’s work has surprisingly little consistent secondary market history, and while a handful of lots have been sold in the past decade (in a range of roughly $4000 to $10000), those data points may not be representative of his best work. As a result, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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