New York

Ken Graves

OK Harris

In 12 small, mixed-media collages, many of which incorporate images culled from popular culture journals dating from the ’30s through the ’50s, Ken Graves throws a monkey wrench into the visual mythmaking machinery that perpetuates the American dream by manipulating the very images that create and sustain it.

Graves, who is best known as a photographer, turns his sharp but reserved wit on the middle class in all its glory, targeting the paradoxes inherent in bourgeois social ritual. Images documenting such activities as home movies, viewing sports, and ballroom dancing become fodder for Graves’ surrealistic rearrangement of the reality they originally portrayed. One of his tactics is the conflation of adult and childlike behavior, that humorously levels social intercourse to its lowest infantile denominator. In . . . And When Do They Take Their Naps?, 1987, a man, a woman, and a child appear in a kitchen along with several toys. Their contortions, originally meant to illustrate various exercise poses, become painfully awkward, and the American household is transformed into a nursery for half-wits. Less ambiguous but equally comic is A Third World Policy, 1988, in which two businessmen engage in a tug-of-war over a small patch of lawn, on which stands a man dressed in a child’s sailor’s outfit.

An apt metaphorical point of entry into the repressed contents that seethe beneath the surface of American culture is, for Graves, the human body, shown in both its mortal weakness and its athletic strength. In Replenishment For a Common Man, 1984, an anatomical illustration, rendering visible a man’s circulatory system into which coffee is being poured, appears on a home-movie screen as a quirky exposé of one nationally accepted addiction. In A Probable Outcome, 1986, a work in which the body serves as a conduit for electricity, an emaciated man stands in a sterile hospital bedroom, his head receiving a bolt of energy from an undisclosed source. In The Home Movies, 1986, an idealized family gazes at a screen on which a tattooed beefcake flexes his muscles. In all of these works, Graves appropriates images of the body from magazines and medical journals, representing them in contexts that highlight their potential to fascinate and threaten.

Graves also excavates and problematizes athletic stereotypes. In Ornithologist, 1987, a determined-looking ’30s football player is stripped of his machismo, appearing in an idyllic landscape, his helmet serving as a nest for several birds. In Box for Bad Boys, 1986, two young men in wrestling poses have been transplanted into an ambiguous domestic setting, while a waiter looks on with curiosity. In both works Graves recontextualizes athletes to call attention to the bizarre nature of sporting ritual.

Graves’ work is rife with sarcasm, but also with nostalgia—one senses a subtle but unmistakable longing for an idealized past even as it is cynically unraveled. These collages are meticulously, even surgically constructed. His is a careful dissection of American idealism as it has been characterized in popular visual histories. True to the medium of collage, Graves engages in a seductive illusionism, yet he thwarts it at every turn by revealing the flatness of his surfaces as a formal reminder of the ease with which myths may be built, or in this case, dismantled.

Jenifer P. Borum