New York

Graham Durward

Randy Alexander

Graham Durward’s work is intense, and intensity possesses an integrity all its own. This artist does not flinch at the spectacle of consciousness deteriorating into flesh, though it does not make for pretty pictures. In its acutely internalized quality, much of Durward’s writing is reminiscent of Antonin Artaud’s. The painful scrawls and scribblings, the bad spelling, the penciled-in corrections in his collages, all give the otherwise baroque text an appealingly gritty feel.

Durward keeps coming back to a few obsessive moments. He writes, “I cannot conceive of anything except in terms of my own body.” His voice is prophetic and garbled—hoarse from the effort to remain audible. Durward is a rare breed of artist whose visual sensitivity is matched by his verbal skills. In the five collage pieces, “Untitled,” (all works 1991), he returns again and again to images of a mutated masculinity. In one piece he writes, “His body is the 8th wonder of the world condemned, perforated, overexposed, unfocused, blurry, discolored.” Another piece includes a found text advertising gay porn, called Variations of the American Male.

It is hard to identify the artist’s own relation to his sexual identity here; Durward blurs distinctions between the gay and straight bodies. The pencil drawing Untitled shows a grinning, bare-breasted hermaphrodite, exposing a penis, while a television in the background features an athletic, unambiguously male figure. This drawing seems to be an allegory of sexual difference in which the sexes exist only in representation. In reality, of course, we are always of both sexes or of neither sex at all.

Durward’s work is about obscenity, but he is not presenting a rational critique of censorship. This is an artist possessed by a messy polymorphous libido. War Bond is a beautiful image of a woman astride a man’s body—a full frontal view of penetration in which the penis seems to fit her vagina, suggesting a perfect lingam. There is beauty in Durward’s world; it often lies behind the ghastly, but it is there.

What is so refreshing about this work is that it does not rely on an agenda or a program. Durward’s art is erotic without being dogmatic. It is intense and violent but never apologetic. It is masculine without being expressly straight or gay. He is obviously fascinated with the phallic function—with its precariousness, its beauty, its obscenity, and the anxiety that accompanies it. He writes, “His erection is a sublime ectoplasmic column, an ebony cherrybomb, a tottem [sic] pole to drive you mad, mad, mad!”

Durward’s collages include his own writing as well as images, both found and made, that he is obsessed with. An aerial shot taken of the bodies blown up by the Rome airport bombing recurs with a reddish-orange gay porn image of two men in front of a mirror. One of the men is kissing the neck of the other, who is swooning ecstatically.

Violence and libido are inseparable in our world; and Durward offers us no prescriptions, proscriptions, or solutions. He merely follows the path of greatest intensity. The artist used this intimate space very effectively to hang a show in which an unbearable intimacy with the secretions and membranes of one’s body becomes a public ecstasy. In our puritanical, warmongering world, private pleasures are policed and degraded by censors and porn makers alike. Durward, as an artist, manages to create a space where the ecstatic experience lives.

Catherine Liu