Art

The Teddy Bears and Soda Cans of Clare Graham

Installation view, 'Clare Graham & MorYork: The Answer is Yes' at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (photo by Jody Miller, courtesy CAFAM)
Installation view, ‘Clare Graham & MorYork: The Answer is Yes’ at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (photo by Jody Miller, courtesy CAFAM)

LOS ANGELES — The term “craft,” especially in the context of the art world, is tricky. Who decides what’s art and what’s craft, and is there a hierarchy between the two? Happily, an exhibition sometimes comes along to further blur the line, as is the case with Clare Graham & MorYork: The Answer is Yes at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM). The LA-based Graham is both a fine artist and a craftsman (as well as a collector and a curator of curiosities), and the exhibition highlights his diverse and hybridized practice with a collection of works made from found and recycled materials including bottle caps, teeth, plush toys, and buttons.

Clare Graham, Anagram Tiled Cabinet w/ personal collection (2014) (photo by Kim Kralj, courtesy CAFAM) (click to enlarge)
Clare Graham, Anagram Tiled Cabinet w/ personal collection (2014) (photo by Kim Kralj, courtesy CAFAM) (click to enlarge)

Entering the third floor of CAFAM, where Graham’s show is located, feels like stepping inside a Wunderkammer to find a display dripping with ephemera, accumulated objects, and shimmering trinkets. The exhibition is a re-creation of Graham’s 7,000-square-foot studio and gallery, MorYork. It is compact (just two small rooms) but hyperbaroque and ornate, without a spare spot to be seen. Graham reclaims and repurposes found objects to construct elaborate sculptural pieces; in a striking series of cabinets some are studded with old molars (yes, actual human teeth), some with letter tiles, and one with dominoes. The brilliance of Graham’s work lies in its serial nature, employing the same materials over and over again in varying and distinctive ways.

Elements that I might normally be critical of in an exhibition, such as overcrowding and overwhelming the space, all work for The Answer is Yes, because they transport the viewer into the surreal world of an obsessive maker’s workshop and showroom. And pieces do stand out amid the overabundance, including the installation “Pop Top” (2011), which consists of a coffee table, chairs, curtains, and more arranged to form a seating area. All of the furniture and decor is made of aluminum frame and the tops of soda-pop cans. The installation encapsulates Graham’s trope of material repetition, as well as his referencing of various postmodern movements, particularly Arte Povera; I could not stop picturing the work of Marisa Merz, specifically her “Untitled (Living Sculpture)” (1966) (and in more contemporary practice, El Anatsui comes to mind).

Clare Graham, Pop Top Love Seat and Pop Top Tete-a-tete sofa, pop-tops over rebar frame (2011) (photo by Kim Kralj, courtesy CAFAM)
Clare Graham, Pop Top Love Seat and Pop Top Tete-a-tete sofa, pop-tops over rebar frame (2011) (photo by Kim Kralj, courtesy CAFAM)
Installation view, "Clare Graham & MorYork: The Answer is Yes"
Installation view, ‘Clare Graham & MorYork: The Answer is Yes’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

A chaise lounge and wall-mounted mosaic made from rolled-out soda-can aluminum also caught my eye. The installation’s aesthetic reminded me of the mosaics you might find walking down the streets of Marrakech or Casablanca. Graham has brilliantly captured the vibrancy of color and the intricacy of the tiling while using a mundane and easily discarded material.

Not everything is beautiful, though: one corner of the exhibition holds a series of pieces made from teddy bears in various stages of dissection. Graham has covered the walls in this area with “fur” from the bears, plucked out their eyes and turned the bears into wreaths, and shoved the rest of them into wire towers. It’s grim, nearly horrific, but also completely intriguing. You can’t help but be seduced.

Clare Graham, Brown Teddy Bear Eyeball Cabinet, and Teddy Bear Bundle Tower (detail) (2014) (photo by Kim Kralj, courtesy CAFAM) (click to enlarge)
Clare Graham, Brown Teddy Bear Eyeball Cabinet, and Teddy Bear Bundle Tower (detail) (2014) (photo by Kim Kralj, courtesy CAFAM)

Clare Graham & MorYork: The Answer is Yes continues through January 4 at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (5814 Wilshire Blvd, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles).

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