Patrick Graham at Jack Rutberg

I’ve always resonated to the works of the Irish painter Patrick Graham, and apparently so has Jack Rutberg who recently opened an exhibit of his work at his Gallery.

The exhibit runs to July 31 with prices ranging from $9,000 to $150,000. Also available is a beautifully put together accompanying catalog with an introduction by Jack Rutberg and two commentaries from Marlena Doktorczyk-Donohue and the ubiquitous Peter Frank. This is a show not to be missed.

For so many artists who love to delve into the figurative, (I count myself as one), some inescapable struggles always confront. I call it “the big balance issue,” the constant search for equilibrium between what is representational and what is not said about the figure. It occurred to Wassily Kandinsky that he could remove this problem by simply making everything non- representational , once writing that “… It cancelled out this torment, and thus my joy in nature and art rose to unclouded heights…” This may have solved things for Kandinsky but only added a further challenge for those future artists who wanted to combine figurative with non-objective elements or backgrounds.

Graham’s solution to this universal struggle is a dance of slash and caress or, put another way, a synthesis of refined lines intermingled with grunge, funk, and distressed forms. In most of the paintings or drawings in the show (not all) he brilliantly achieves a strong sense of the Gestalt for the viewer because he is a master of placement; his works are not as haphazard as they often appear to be. A little too much here or a bit too little there and the balance is gone; Graham is holding fire in his hand without burning himself.

Doktorczyk-Donohue, in her article, saw analogies between Graham and the Irish prodigy of prodigies James Joyce, saying that “Graham’s figures heatedly negotiate that thin little space between the sacred and the profane that we all know well.” Lest that point be missed, she goes on to quote a passage from a letter by Joyce to his wife saying that, “My love for you allows me to pray to the spirit of eternal beauty and tenderness mirrored in your eyes or to fling you down under me on that soft belly of yours and f*** you up behind, like a hog riding a sow, glorying in the very stink and sweat.”

As original as an artist can be, one always sees common features of other artists in their work and Graham is no exception. There are shades of Egon Schield, Francis Bacon, Cy Twombly, Alberto Giacometti, William De Kooning, and even some Nathan Oliveira. But for me, I was struck by the visual kinship that exists between the works of Patrick Graham and the fabulously inventive Argentine artist Gustavo Armentia. Certainly there are differences, one being that, unlike Graham, Armentia is quite narrative.  But both are expressionistic, both reconcile their figure(s) in their backgrounds brilliantly and both create a high level of intriguing mystery in their art. What’s interesting is that Graham does all this by deliberately degrading his formal training (which still shows) while Armentia, who never had formal training, pumps up his figures with enough sophistication to make things work.

Rutberg puts it well when he states in the catalog that “knowing is a sort of killing off, where no further inquiry or discovery is possible. I’ll gladly settle for being confounded and continue the journey.” That’s a bulls-eye statement by Rutberg because no matter how many times you look at a work from Graham, new discovies will always confront or, as Rutberg puts it, “confound” the viewer.

Anyone who is familiar with the anatomy of a human figure can easily see that underneath his deconstructed figures, minus a hand, a head, a leg or other parts, the body remains anatomically correct however much it is stylized or altered. In some of his drawings, such as his 2009 “Artist and Model Series,” his classical background in drawing becomes more evident to the viewer.  But Graham, like many good artists, can dump the constraints of formula drawing and still retain its acquired skills to create his own interpretations. In fact, Doktorczyk-Donohue quotes Graham as saying, “…What I did so easily … and got so much attention for was an empty skill, a kind of sleight of the hand, but not real art…”

Obviously Graham is relying strongly on the line but the figures and backgrounds still show an artist fully capable of rendering with values. You see this in some of his expressionistic self-portraits. For me, these Giacometti-like self-portraits bring to mind the agony in Caravaggio’s self-portrait as Goliath where you wonder what the artist’s demons are all about. Graham gives you just so much information or clues about these tortured spirits, leaving the rest to the viewer’s imagination.

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