Paul Graham: The Whiteness of the Whale

Review

Paul Graham: The Whiteness of the Whale

By Forrest McGarvey November 19, 2015

With almost sixty works from three series spanning thirteen years, Paul Graham: The Whiteness of the Whale is the first single-artist show installed at Pier 24 Photography. In the work, British artist Paul Graham has taken America as his subject of interest, traveling to various states and documenting people, places, and objects. American Night (1998–2002) presents large 4-by-5 prints of waiting, wandering, and isolated subjects overexposed into obscurity along with dense, colorful prints of large California houses decorated with candy-red cars and pristine blue skies. In The Present (2009–2011), Graham took to the streets of New York, producing sequential street photography–style shots that play with senses of space and time. The last series installed, A Shimmer of Possibility (2004–2006), fragments the silence and stillness found in American Night into multiple perspectives in collections of images of parked cars, empty lots, and sunsets.

Paul Graham. Man Waiting at Bus Stop, Detroit, 2001; 71 ½ x 91 ¼ in. Courtesy of the Artist and Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco.

As a viewer moves through the massive show, Graham’s strategies for selecting his subjects and manipulating the formal qualities of the images become more apparent, resulting in a romanticized spectacle that leaves the viewer feeling ambivalent and unfulfilled. Graham uses the controlled process of photography, from aiming through the viewfinder to the adjustment of color on the final prints, to depict his vision of American life. The combination of banal, conventional subject matter and striking visual techniques ultimately reduces the work to its formal qualities. In American Night, Graham manipulates light to build contrasts between works with nearly invisible content and others saturated with intense color. But the differences between overgrown back roads in Louisiana and opulent homes in California are obvious, and the sense of drama depends on tired tropes of the empty plasticity of wealth and the transient non-places of poverty. By further playing up these perspectives through the massive scale of the photographs, Graham leaves a viewer feeling uncomfortable about accepting these imposing yet generic visualizations of economic standing. 

Paul Graham. White SUV Outside New House, California, 2002; 71 ½ x 91 ¼ in. Courtesy of the Artist and Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco.

The series The Present further pushes elements of theatricality with its lighting and framing. As figures walk through New York, tall buildings create cones of light and shadow that stage each subject. In the triptych Port Authority, 17th August, 2010, 11.01.33.am, three figures are centered in their own frames. Each frame has remnants of the last, as the central figures can be seen traveling into and out of the panels where they are not featured. With this implied passage of time and narrative connection between subjects, the composition makes a clever visual allusion to a theatrical production, as if each “character” is walking into the spotlight or offstage. In the right-hand panel, a woman walks with her tiny dog toward the viewer, her face turned up at the light in a pose recalling neoclassical paintings that use illumination to depict a religious experience. The drama of religion adds new interest to the otherwise dry observation of the quotidian, complicating the simplistic assertion and romanticized understanding of New York as a city full of stories and characters.

Paul Graham. Port Authority, 17th August 2010, 11.01.33. am, 2010; three prints, 56 x 74 ½ in. each. Courtesy of the Artist and Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco. 

Toward the back of the gallery, A Shimmer of Possibility extends this romantic view to other parts of America. Religious undertones persist as Graham photographs weathered hands clasping cups and cigarettes, bursts of sunlight lining fluffy yet ominous clouds, and congregations of people with downcast eyes. A sense of desolation begins to take hold, perhaps from a viewer’s fatigue at the end of the ninth gallery or the redundancy of yet another captured, poignant moment. Unlike the other two series, Shimmer at least takes advantage of its numbers and uses interesting installation choices to fragment and isolate the images from one another, adding a temporal dimension to the otherwise singular subjects. And there are a few standouts among images of people wandering through empty shopping centers and car lots. In New Orleans (Cherries on Sidewalk) (2006), the red of spilled maraschino cherries pops against the gritty gray street with an intensity that makes their sweetness and syrup seem tangible. Pathetic, honest, and semi-absurd, the image is appealing and in contrast to the romanticism in the rest of Shimmer, exemplified in work like the purply-orange sunset-bathed North Dakota (Moonrise at Garage) (2005).

Throughout the images in The Whiteness of the Whale, Graham imposes an oversimplified vision of America that estranges a viewer from the otherwise quotidian imagery. Considering the Herman Melville novel from which the show draws its title, the unsettling ending, in which Ahab is pulled into the sea by the white whale, suggests a telling metaphor of a man consumed by his own obsession, perhaps warning of the consequences of being seduced by romantic pursuits.  

Paul Graham. New Orleans (Cherries), 2005. Courtesy of the Artist and Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco.

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Paul Graham: The Whiteness of the Whale is on view at Pier 24 Photography, in San Francisco, through February 29, 2016.

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