New York

Rodney Graham

Christine Burgin Gallery

From the early ’80s to this show of his latest works, Rodney Graham, an artist from Vancouver, Canada, has developed within Ian Wilson’s genre of “nonvisual abstraction.” In 1984, Wilson, an early member of Art & Language, described Conceptual art as an extension of poetry, literature, and philosophy: one that “takes the principles of visual abstraction, founded in the visual arts, and applies them to language.” Wilson places linguistic Conceptual art in a hierarchy above other so-called physically bounded art forms: “True conceptual art moves beyond visual and physical execution of ideas no matter how abstract. . . [and] is found within the formless abstractions of language,” which, with its “capacity to describe concepts without physical or visual references carries us into an advanced state of abstraction.”

In projects like Lenz, 1983, in which Graham produced a loop of text that repeated a section of Georg Büchner’s 1835 novella of the same name, creating a symbolic and temporal loop in the narrative, and in the textual insert made into Edgar Allan Poe’s The System of Landor’s Cottage as well as his textual interventions to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Graham speaks in the voice of the author and expands the original. In the past, text adaptations have existed in an art context in the form of books, a guise that, despite their elevated position in Wilson’s art/concept hierarchy, Graham has now decided to extend into the sculptural realm. With the “Standard Edition” series (produced in a multiple of three, and shown at three locations), Graham’s four-page insert into Freud has been interpolated and bound into a set of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. This nonstandard Standard Edition has been incorporated into sculptures consisting of the books combined with miniaturized, laminated versions of Donald Judd wall pieces that serve as book/display cases. Graham’s “Standard Edition” is an evocative failure. Conceptually, the piece is a one-liner based on the campy conjoining of Judd, “the materialist,” with Freud, “the subjectivist.” The result is ironic, provocative, and therefore (to a certain extent) funny. More interesting, however, is the fact that Graham’s work illuminates a prejudice underlying the Conceptual project as defined by Wilson: namely that the literal application of words is the most “advanced” manner of expressing abstract thought. Graham sets up an oppositional relationship between Wilson’s visual abstraction—an object-oriented art—and nonvisual abstraction—a word-based art. He identifies the “object” with Judd, who considers his work a literal, nonmetaphoric, material representation of “things in themselves.” Graham presents Judd’s object as the support of ideas: the “thing in itself” becomes the embodiment of the ordinary, and becomes subsidiary and hence silly. Graham creates a dichotomy between the object—a functional piece of furniture or a campy commodity—and his insert to the Freud text, a “word art” that one may see as hermetic, obscure, complex, abstract. This dichotomy implies a Cartesian body/mind split (which is the premise beneath Wilson’s definition of the Conceptual genre) and a polarity that is archaic. The argument against this bias would be that all paradigms of the mind are abstractions, “things in themselves.” Art objects themselves are abstractions, and it has been suggested—from Arthur Danto to Rosalind Krauss—that art objects are extensions or abstractions of the human body. Graham and Wilson have also equated art materiality with the body, even though the austere esthetic of “word art” does not preclude it from being an object or a body.

By mocking Judd’s art and its discourse, Graham presents words as the pinnacle of his hierarchy. This leap of faith indicates a preference for linguistics (the basis of the critical discourse that is now in favor) over phenomenology, which is conceptually tied to the senses, and located in the body. This is a new version of a familiar idea; it is body undermined.

Claudia Hart