“Time has made us strangers”
Scorched poplar, spalted maple, dirt, fungus
This work was made for the KMAC (Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft) 2023 Triennial entitled “Divided We Fall”.
Inspired by the current and lost connection of shaker furniture in Kentucky. This cabinet is coming out of the ground still alive. Although buried, it seems rather to be growing vs being drawn forth.
Full review of my works in the KMAC triennial by critic Dan Cameron is below the images.
TAMING THE BEAST
For the past several years, J. Daniel Graham’s art has straddled two related but fundamentally distinct worlds. A master of wood-carving (among other skills), he has long applied his hard-won virtuosity to producing unique musical instruments and other applied objects with a very high level of precision and finish. In part as a result of his educational background in printmaking and furniture, Graham’s stated goals for beginning a new piece are often in service of a problem to be solved, a hypothesis to be tested, or simply a request for a family heirloom. Since in most parts of the country there is usually a consistent level of demand for finely crafted wood objects, it isn’t hard to imagine a world where Graham would be known exclusively as a creator of beautiful, bespoke functional objects.
Reality is never simple, however, and in that respect Graham’s varied studio practices have always functioned, in part, to lay the groundwork for his works of sculpture. These by definition function within the more narrow spectrum of contemporary art, wherein technical virtuosity constitutes a mere fraction of the full artistry required to create something whose primary function is to serve as an object of contemplation, now and into the future. Complicating this question of taxonomy and parallel canons is the implicit art historical hierarchy that elevates the figure of the fine artist considerably above that of the applied artist. In this environment, acclaimed painters and sculptors are highly incentivized to develop sidelines in ceramics or lithography, where much of the same skills apply. But the movement is almost never in the other direction, and consequently there is very little critical discourse that readies us to consider an artist whose applied works and fine art objects occupy the same sphere of importance.
In two recent pieces that predate those works on view in the KMAC Triennial, Jaw, Paw, Hand, Drawer and The Trust You Handed Over, Graham turned his attention not to any set of exterior circumstances, but to that eternal font of artistic inspiration, his inner self. Both sculptures are part of the series Domestication for Survival, which explores ways in which different species, in particular humans, have adapted to their changing circumstances over time by becoming increasingly domesticated. Within the series Graham has designated certain animals as stand-ins for humans, and his particular subject of interest is the self-taming that must occur, especially in the temperament of the male of the species if he is to successfully transition from the more solitary mode of hunter-gatherer to the domesticated role of husband, father, and family provider.
The larger of Graham’s two works made for the KMAC Triennial, titled I would sing two songs if I had one voice, envisions a form of adaptation related less to individual behavior than a form of group ingenuity — in this case a pair of life-size carved deer walking on preposterously long stilts several feet above the ground. The artist relates his use of the image from well-known historical photos taken in France a century ago of a group of shepherds in the southwestern marshlands where land was so difficult to traverse that they devised five-foot stilts in order to make their way across their fields and keep an eye on their flocks. By substituting deer for humans, Graham’s piece underscores the precarious nature of their plight, which is especially acute in light of the mutual danger faced when deer and humans unexpectedly collide, particularly when the homo sapiens are encased in a vehicle moving down a highway at at 60 mph. Deer correctly perceive humans as predators, but whether the threat comes from hunters or their own inability to perceive oncoming traffic, the notion that stilts might somehow help them adapt is elegiac in its sheer impossibility.
The smaller Graham sculpture on view, Time had made us strangers, brings a sharpened perspective to the broader conversation about how his work addresses the existing tensions between high art and applied art. The piece consists of a perfectly executed Shaker cabinet displayed on a low-rising plinth with its delicately bowed legs seeming to emerge from a pile of soil. The chest drawers have all been pulled open to expose the maximum number of outer and inner wood surfaces, most of which are marked by actual mushrooms, the artful selection and placement of which wittily bely any other resemblance to a rotted tree trunk in a forest. Just as we all know that wood comes from trees living in forests, we also know that the Shakers’ famed simplicity of design did not come about as a lifestyle or aesthetic choice, but rather through the adaptation of their religious and philosophical beliefs to challenges of the bleak wilderness that confronted them in the New World. As the visual equivalent of low-hanging fruit, Graham offers us an astute visual parable of the clash between the high aesthetic values we automatically assign to a “perfect” example of Shaker furniture, and our involuntary shudder at the notion of such a refined object rotting away in the wet woods, defaced by fungi. But Graham is also providing us with a revised conceptual framework for thinking about the Shakers themselves. By making a literal connection between the Shakers’ finest products and the essential role that mushrooms and other fungi play in the cycle of life, Graham locates the fruits of his own artistic labors within a more profound context of meaning than just the perfect execution of an artistic Illusion — or a functional object.
The inevitable transformation of the hand-worked object in Graham’s art from a tool for applied use to an aesthetic object that performs no practical task has entailed giving us a moral or ethical conundrum which transcends the limits of mere utility. Humans first developed tools in order to supersede the limiting forces that nature imposed on our capacity to survive and prosper. Now that we have seemingly attained these goals far beyond our dreams, humans find themselves forced to cope with the revelation that our overwhelming past success at propagating the species requires us to employ the same ingenuity today, except that it’s to mitigate the destructive results of centuries of our headlong quest to conquer anything and everything that lay before us.
DAN CAMERON is a curator and art critics who lives in New York City.