His secret Citadel animates the art of male friendship
By Kathleen Higgins
Photo: Mike Lalich.
Graeme Patterson, "Secret Citadel," 2013, multimedia installation.
Graeme Patterson’s home sits on a quiet corner in Sackville, N.B. Remnants of snow mark the lawn and wisps of smoke curl from the chimney in his garage studio. He welcomes me and we settle in front of the stove, coffee in hand. The space is barren, save for a desk, a workbench and the skeletal start of his next project. Given the scale of his past works, and the four to five years he has devoted to each, it’s fun to imagine what will ensue. For now, though, it’s quiet, much like Patterson himself.
Photo: Mike Lalich.
Graeme Patterson, "Camp Wakonda," 2013, animation still.
“Space is a big thing for me,” says Patterson, who settled on the two-acre plot after spending a decade moving back and forth between Halifax and his native Saskatchewan. “It’s nice to be in a place where I can build and do crazy things, and get little bits of money here and there. I have time and space.”
Patterson’s childhood fascination with stop-motion animation led him first to the Dundas Valley School of Art in Ontario and, eventually, to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he thrived, despite an inauspicious start. “I guess my portfolio was pretty bad,” he says with a laugh. “But I did this stop-motion animation, and … after I did really well within that first year, these hilarious profs told me: ‘Your portfolio wasn’t great, but there was something in that animation that showed you’re dedicated.’ ”
While at art school, Patterson became interested in painting and sculpture, which he combined with animation for his 2002 award-winning student project, Don’t Ride Shopping Carts. He soon galvanized into a practice that incorporates different media and multiple layers, creating what he calls full-bodied installations that develop over time. This exacting process would be key in his major project, Woodrow, and his most recent undertaking, Secret Citadel, which runs Feb. 14 to April 12 at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge.
Photo: Mike Lalich.
"Player Piano Waltz"
Graeme Patterson, "Player Piano Waltz," 2013, mixed-media installation, 7’ x 5’ x 3’.
Patterson was a finalist for last year’s Sobey Art Award, his second time on the shortlist for the prestigious prize for artists under 40. His first, in 2009, was largely the result of a 2007 piece that saw him return to his late grandfather’s home in Woodrow, Sask. “I was kind of obsessed with that for a while, the idea of the West, and especially my grandparents and their lifestyle out there,” he says. “That rural lifestyle, it’s something I always had romantic thoughts about.”
The resulting installation was composed of 10 intricate sculptural tributes to the buildings and people in the unincorporated community. It was wildly ambitious for a young artist, combining Patterson’s first love, stop-motion animation, with puppetry and large-scale sculptures, and received a good response at exhibitions across the country. But, more significantly to Patterson, the residents of Woodrow embraced it. An open house he held shortly before the work debuted at the Mendel Art Gallery revealed what he had been doing out at the old farm. Many locals made the trip to Saskatoon, bringing along friends and family to see their town, in miniature, at the gallery.
Secret Citadel is another work fuelled by obsession. This time, though, the theme is friendship. By melding animation and miniature models, Patterson created four large-scale tableaus that examine the complexities of male friendship during different life phases. His initial exploration of his relationship with his best childhood friend grew into The Mountain, a sprawling installation comprised of two house-like structures connected to a mountain. “There was more I needed to talk about, more I needed to explore,” Patterson says. “It wasn’t resolved for me, so I had more time with it, and it grew and grew and grew.”
Three other pieces followed – Camp Wakonda, Grudge Match and Player Piano Waltz – creating a quasi-chronological journey through a lifetime of friendship. Sports and competition, in the form of wrestling, archery and table tennis, play out inside tiny living rooms and a gymnasium with a set of full-size bleachers. Two dapper animals – a buffalo and a cougar – serve as avatars, not just for Patterson and his friends, but also for the idea of masculine friendships, enacting rivalry and comradery in sculptures and accompanying animations. There’s something at once childlike and sinister about the pieces; while the anthropomorphic buffalo and cougar shoot arrows at targets inside cabin-like structures atop two life-sized bunk beds in Camp Wakonda, a bus engulfed in flames sits below them. The animation features the avatars in battle with more animalistic versions of themselves and the bunk-bed miniatures burn down to ash.
Perhaps most stark and telling is Player Piano Waltz, which features a beautiful bar built into a functioning player piano, also constructed by Patterson. This take on adult friendships sees the buffalo and cougar isolated and removed from one another, not quite connecting. “That’s why it’s the player piano,” says Patterson. “It just kind of loops the song, like we’re just stuck in this. We don’t really change the way we interact with our friends any more. We’re just locked into our own world. We have our friends, but we’re just looping.”
As a whole, the pieces create an over-arching narrative, at once intensely personal, reflecting Patterson’s own experiences and relationships with his male friends, but also a general commentary on the ebb and flow of friendship relevant to any viewer. The animal avatars allow a universality Patterson considers vital. “That’s why I removed language from it, why there’s no dialogue,” he says. “There are symbols, visual stuff, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be taken in another way. I’ve intentionally opened myself up, but I’m only using that as a way to connect with people, to somehow express a language that’s been part of me. But people don’t have to know any more about me. Maybe they know more about themselves or somebody else, and relate it to another experience.”
Obsession is a funny thing. Patterson’s enveloping, almost overwhelming installations contain such detail that each viewing reveals more nuances and surprises. Sculpture, sound and animation create layer upon layer of meaning and experience, so one can almost feel the emotion poured into every figure and sculpture. Patterson lives with his projects for years, not only while creating them, but also in the way he works to position and install them in different venues. In the end, each obsession is put to bed, laid out to be interpreted and internalized by viewers, clearing the way for the next obsession to take hold and take form.