Review: Paul Graham, “Does Yellow Run Forever?”

© Paul Graham, from Does Yellow Run Forever?

I've been traveling for the last six weeks in the United States and while I was there I had the chance to see a number of exhibitions and shows. I used the trip as my yearly time away from fototazo, however, meaning I'm only now getting around to writing a review of a show I saw weeks ago and after it's already down. I don't think it matters too much, though - the review will try to make larger points about the exhibition as a body of work.

Paul Graham's "Does Yellow Run Forever?" features 20 large-scale color images taken between 2011 and 2014. It was at Pace between September 5th and October 4th, 2014.

The show has also been reviewed on Collector Daily and L'Oeil de la Photographie and in The New York Times. The accompanying book to the exhibition was reviewed by Adam Bell on Paper Journal and by Joerg Colberg on Conscientious.

Previous Graham projects have either worked a specific landscape, such as the streets of New York, post-war Japan or Great Britain's A1, or they have limited spatial reference almost completely in order to focus on portrait typographies, such as in End of an Age or Television Portraits

DYRF combines these two approaches, creating an imagined geography from two concrete spaces - Ireland's green rainbow-filled countryside and gold shops in New York City – with a portrait series of his girlfriend, Senami, sleeping in various generic rooms that are only spatially located by including New Zealand in their titles.

The installation continues to evolve the ground-breaking layouts of a shimmer of possibility and The Present. Graham hangs images at varying heights - the rainbows high, the portraits in the middle, the gold shops low - and varying distances from one another. The prints, which include both C-prints and pigment prints, also vary in size. The show is low density like The Present with 20 images (The Present had 16). Graham has placed several of the images in a golden frame and interspersed them throughout the installation with the rest of the images which are mounted in white frames. The changes in mounting height, distances between images, differences in print sizes and print types and the two styles of frame keep one's eyes moving through the space, in their sum giving the layout an expertly produced rhythm. Unlike his previous two shows, Graham intermixes groups of photographs (rainbows, gold shops, woman sleeping) instead of installing similar photographs together as vignettes.

© Paul Graham, from Does Yellow Run Forever?

The similar style of installation and the use of vignettes of photographs gives the show a sense of being a follow up to a shimmer of possibility, although its brevity makes it feel a bit more like a lost chapter from the previous work than a separate work building from it.

The forming of three discrete groups of photographs is too particular to suggest a looser, lyrical understanding of the work that we might bring to, for example, work by Gregory Halpern. What conclusions, then, can we realistically draw from the interrelationship of these three groups? 

I've spoken with a number of people about the show because this question has left me thinking. A month later, I'm still thinking about it which is usually a great sign, but in this case I'm ultimately unable to draw more out of the show beyond basic and reductive ideas that are ultimately problematic.

Graham comes out of a documentary past and has long worked on projects that have focused on questions of race and/or class, beginning with his work on England's welfare system in Beyond Caring. His recent work has focused in particular on poverty in inner city African-American populations, most notably American Night, but also parts of shimmer and The Present. Given the inclusion of gold shops in fairly disheveled areas of New York and the use of a Black model as his portrait subject, the first possible ideas that come to mind for exploring what Graham's getting at with DYRF seem logically to be – again - questions of race and class, specifically in America.

The project closes down such possibilities for a social reading of the work as quickly as we can generate them, however. While the rooms the woman is photographed in at first look very sparse and therefore probably inexpensive, closer inspection of the sheets and fixtures shows them to be clean, of high quality, free of stains or signs of use. She's also his girlfriend in an intimate space, not the strangers found in his previous work, and the work establishes a metageography spliced together from Ireland, New York City and New Zealand instead of exploring a specific place. Plus there are those damned rainbows that make up over a third of the body of work to include in any understanding of it and rainbows don't lend themselves to social commentary interpretations, Graham's project Ceasefire notwithstanding.

These elements taken together define the work as more personal, more metaphorical than socially-oriented. The project is distinctly different, we conclude, from Graham's past work. Such a project would signal an important shift in Graham's career, with the girlfriend the key to tying us into his most intimate work yet.

© Paul Graham, from Does Yellow Run Forever?

There's an issue, however. The intriguing spark this possibility generates is quickly snuffed by looking again at the grab bag of well-worn metaphors Graham has left us holding: dreaming/sleeping girlfriend, rainbows and gold shops in poor neighborhoods. Is Senami dreaming the rainbows and gold shops? Are the gold shops standing for failed dreams, the rainbows for hope? Is this a "meditation" on possible spiritual (rainbows), material (gold) and romantic (girlfriend) fulfillments as the show's press release would like? A month later I haven't gotten beyond any interpretation of the three elements that elevates it above a project you'd reduce to rubble in an undergraduate critique as trite. The fact Graham has hung the rainbows high on the wall and the gold shops near the floor doesn't help. 

A photographer's job is to not to draw the conclusions for the observer, but to charge the atmosphere for possible conclusions. Here Graham has failed by making his reduction too simple, the calculus too basic for substantial conclusions to be drawn. Although I admire the effort, the work doesn't escape its tired symbolic roots. If I'm wrong and the content is greater, he's buried the clues too deep in containers too generic to allow the observer to participate in the work in any meaningful way. Looking at rainbows and sleeping women and gold shops doesn't make me meditate on fulfillment, it makes me want to leave.

© Paul Graham, from Does Yellow Run Forever? 

The efficiency of idea and the rigor of specific decisions found in the installation mentioned previously becomes problematic when they are brought to the content of the photographs. When it comes to content, Graham's efficiency leaves impoverishment, creating three very specific and basic visual elements that fail to synthesize into anything intriguing.

Worse yet, the conceptual strike out of DYRF reinforces the problematic elements of past bodies of work. American Night looks even more heavy-handed in its symbolism of sparse social landscapes of Blacks in the city and wealthy suburban homes. The replacement of a wealthy man in a suit in the following photograph by a poor man in rags in a street-crossing in The Present seems even more obvious. The poor Black woman eating fried chicken in shimmer seems even less vetted as potential stereotyping.

Graham has rightfully been revered for his formal reinvigoration of the street photography genre and his visionary conceptualizations of how to present his work in books and galleries.  The overwhelming applause generated by his innovative plays of focus, sequence and framing in his photographs and by his inventive layouts is very warranted, but heavily basing criticism of his work in those elements has allowed Graham to largely slide by in terms of thematic content. When we start to take a look at that content with more scrutiny, his recent work – here I would definitely include American Night and DYRF and to a lesser degree shimmer and The Present - feels awkwardly literal.