Jody Graham’s exhibition Salvage sees a return to a subject matter that, whilst by no means her only one, has become synonymous with her name: Sydney’s urban landscapes, especially its historical buildings. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, a façade is either: 1) the front of a building or any face of a building given special architectural treatment; or 2) a false, superficial, or artificial appearance or effect. Jody Graham draws neither.
If given only a cursory glance – which would be highly undeserving – her works might seem to portray the fronts of buildings, but they dig deeper than that. They anthropomorphise, and they unearth the lived histories of a building; the capacity for brick and mortar to be story-teller, memory-keeper. These new works in particular are a creative defiance of our throw-away, consumer culture, and a call-to-arms to value the old; to mend instead of disregard. Interspersed with construction sites, a reminder of the erasure of the past and the development of the new, much of the show is comprised of reworked – salvaged – older drawings in which Graham has built on the existing history of marks to create a new work.
After focussing on the three-dimensional for a while, Graham embarked on a self-imposed regime of creating one drawing a day for sixty days. These works would become Salvage, and they evolved organically out of that often-fruitful combination of structure and free play. In The Only Window (Day 42), a quiet but forceful work, layers and scratches and more layers of mark-making overlap like the many paint colours uncovered when sanding old walls. All those lives, the building has absorbed and still holds. The exterior of a building is a container of mystery and possibility. They can become ours more readily than the interior does, which always belongs to the owner. The façade is perfect then for creating meaning: less personal, they are more symbolic, almost archetypal. They present a face to the world that is carefully cultivated, much like we do, and Graham unmasks them. She treats her inanimate subject as something alive, healing the wounds of her aging building with tender, expressive stitches. Those stitches say: “there is value here, if you choose to look”.
Unexpectedly for the subject matter, Graham’s work has none of the cold rigidity and formality of architectural drawings; instead they tremble with energy and emotions ranging from exuberance to existential doubt. I see in this contrast her revolt against the lack of humanity in the quickly and poorly made apartment blocks of today, her esteem for the history and personality of the older buildings, created with more care and artistry. Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1 per cent remain in use six months after sale. Graham uses her art to show us that our redemption lies in seeing afresh and repairing what we already have.
In keeping with these concerns, Graham has made her own drawing tools out of found materials, repurposing the discarded and overlooked to create something both functional and beautiful. Used to create the works in this show, they are also exhibited alongside them as art objects in their own right. Making your own tools, like growing you own food, is a political act; you are bypassing the wheel of neoliberal consumerism. In these tools, like the works created with them, we can again see artistic creation as an act of resistance.
The few landscape works are a predominance of red ochre, dark as dried blood. Seam I (Day 36) features, amongst a multitude of smaller cuts, one large vertical scar, serious, hastily mended with sutures like the strokes of some half-remembered alphabet. They tell of coal seam gas mining and the bulldozing of our natural world for the sake of short-term financial profit.
Scars make a unified whole out of what was damaged, like an old bowl with cracks resurrected in the Japanese tradition of kintsugi with veins of shimmering gold. The works in Jody Graham’s exhibition Salvage are uplifting in their assertion that whilst we may be broken, individually and certainly collectively, our salvation is possible.
View the exhibition here