Who Rocks Exactly? Dan Graham at Transformer Station
When I saw the title of the new show at the Transformer Station: “Dan Graham/Rocks”, I was excited. My knowledge of this video/conceptual artist consisted of a grainy documentation of a Minor Threat performance at CBGBs, so I was eager to learn about his connection to Cleveland. A connection that seemed to be inferred by the title (obviously playing off of the ever-present “Cleveland Rocks” slogan), also because the Museum’s promotional materials hinted at one – the brochure at the information desk actually bears the title “Cleveland Rocks”, and the large text panel at the entrance of the show says it will look at “local history through the artwork”. But, in fact (Spoiler Alert): There is not really any connection to Cleveland (at least not a direct one). Despite this flimsy attempt to insert Cleveland into what is perfectly compelling narrative on its own, Graham’s work is worth a look. If anything, “Dan Graham/Rocks” is a great opportunity to see all of the artist’s rock-themed video works in one fell swoop.
There’s no doubt that Graham is a seminal figure in twentieth-century art. In the sixties he showed the works of his Minimalist friends such as Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Sol Le Witt in his gallery. Always leaning heavily on conceptual paradigms, he inserted his early criticism/art pieces into mass market magazines, effectively crossing the line between critic and artist. But he is perhaps best known now for his glass pavilion installations. A photographer, video artist, producer, curator, art dealer, fan of Walter Benjamin and the Mets; it’s hard to pin Graham down. But the thematic approach to this exhibition organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art actually works quite well as a close examination of one angle (in my opinion the best) of his oeuvre.
The main room of the exhibition is dominated by one of Graham’s trademark glass pavilions. These constructions dance on the edge of being architecture, but are more reminiscent of the minimalist sculpture of his buddies. This particular one, titled “Design for Showing Rock Videos” (2014) consists of large, curved panes of glass framed with stainless steel, and a single panel of perforated steel. Inside the structure are monitors playing several of Graham’s rock-related videos, surrounded by cushions strewn with headphones.
The atmosphere is cozy, but simultaneously awkward. The glass is transparent, making this seemingly comfortable place oddly uncomfortable, as others milling about the outside of the structure are looking right at you. Or are they looking at the pavilion? It doesn’t really matter. We are all his pawns, performing just as much as the punk acts on the screens. I have to admit that this particular pavilion is not one of my favorites. In the past, Graham has used two-way mirrors and other visual trickery to make the voyeurism even more exciting. (If you want to learn more about how these pavilions were built, head the CMA to see his “Pavilion Compilation” video in Gallery 224b).
Hanging around the outside wall of the space are some of Graham’s best known photographs – some of which were included in his magazine-essay-art-piece “Homes for America”, published in Arts Magazine in December of 1966.
These rather static documentations of suburban tract housing, housing developments, and other tired buildings are Graham’s serialized examination of the banality of vernacular architecture of the time. This magazine spread is also pretty funny (I very much enjoy the humor in his work) – it’s a bit like the fancy pictorials in Life Magazine, but has sad shots of boring architecture instead of anything remotely compelling.
But most importantly, by inserting these photographs into a magazine, Graham effectively eschewed the limits of traditional art galleries and their white cube elitism – favoring the disposable egalitarian nature of a monthly periodical.
But this room in the Transformer Station is the epitome of a white cube setting. I can’t think of a whiter cube in Cleveland. The individual photographs are nicely framed, carefully spaced apart, displayed without labels, and don’t seem very funny at all. They hang like silent witnesses to the frenetic energy of the pavilion and its raucous videos. But maybe that’s the point? In a way, the room operates as a literal interpretation one of the show’s main themes: the intersection of suburban America and punk rock music (a subject that I will return to in due course).
The room opposite is a black box, showing only one video, Graham’s most famous, “Rock My Religion” (1983-1984). Using archival and found footage, titles, music, and narration, this 55-minute masterpiece is far and away my favorite piece in the show (I’ve actually watched it twice since). In what I can only describe as a visual theoretical essay, Graham aligns rock music and alternative religions, demonstrating the connections between these two seemingly disparate practices. He puts footage of Shakers at a revival – quaking, shaking, and oddly dancing in religious ecstasy, to the music of Sonic Youth (Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, Graham’s close friends, provided the soundtrack with Glenn Branca) – and I’m telling you, these Shakers look like they would fit right in at a dingy punk show. Later, footage of a Minor Threat concert pit is compared to teenagers falling all over each watching Jerry Lee Lewis – and it’s uncanny. Of course, while these comparisons are apt, the whole exercise is a bit ridiculous, and to me, quite funny (again, I really appreciate the tongue-in-cheek humor at work here).
Graham posits that Patti Smith is the modern age’s Mary Magdalene, Jim Morrison our shaman, and Ian Mackaye our preacher. Weaving in and out of history, Graham examines the corporate side of teenage culture in the 50s, the banality of the suburbs (some of his tract home photographs are shown), and the sexual freedom of the hippies. In many ways it feels like a parody of an early 80s educational film (for a course that I would certainly love to take).
But where exactly is Cleveland in all this? Well, it’s in the didactic material to be sure. Written by artist/critic/curator John Miller, the 24-page brochure at the entrance, “Cleveland Rocks”, attempts to connect Cleveland’s history to Graham’s works. Unfortunately, most of these comparisons seem tenuous at best, some quite a stretch (Sure, Shaker Square was named for Shakers and they appear in his film, but so what?). Miller brings up iconic Cleveland “things” like its well-known significance to the history of rock and roll, John Rockefeller, the burning of the Cuyahoga, Kent State, Pere Ubu, and the Hough Riots – but I’m not feeling very convinced. Sure, one could argue that there was definitely a connection between the banality of suburban life and punk music in Cleveland (Devo comes to mind) – but I’m pretty sure I could come up with examples from several cities (Death in Detroit, the Nuns in San Francisco, X in Los Angeles, Suicide Commandos in Minneapolis, etc. Isn’t that what American punk was pretty much about? Everywhere?).
I guess what I’m asking is: do we need Cleveland here? Perhaps some excellent links could be drawn if they had included comparative works by Cleveland artists/musicians/writers of the time that engage similar discourses. But as it stands, Cleveland in the context of this exhibition feels like an afterthought, with no clear significance or deeply critical value. Does Cleveland’s history challenge / expand upon / engage Dan Graham’s work? I’m still not sure. But despite this, one thing’s for sure: Dan Graham certainly “Rocks”, and it’s worth the trip for that reason alone.