Secret Citadel: Graeme Patterson celebrates and mourns childhood friendships

By Lizzy Hill on March 17, 2014

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Graeme Patterson, Player Piano Waltz (detail), 2013, 7ft H x 5ft W x 4ft L, working player piano, wood, mixed materials, video/audio components. © Graeme Patterson

A buffalo in a dashing blue blazer spins in dizzying figure eights on a rolling chair. He’s followed by a cougar in a bright orange jacket, who stares like a kitten ready to pounce, playfully daring the viewer to make the first move. Without warning, the anthropomorphic duo is swept away into a swirling vortex, concluding Graeme Patterson’s stop-motion animation on the wall of Halifax’s Art Gallery of Nova Scotia—part of his latest solo exhibition, Secret Citadel. Entering Patterson’s carefully constructed world feels a bit like walking into a spinning vortex—one that plays selected memories of the journey from childhood to adulthood on a continuous loop.

In Secret Citadel, Patterson explores the things we lose as we enter adulthood, while examining the complex lives and interpersonal relationships we form as children. Central to this body of work is the notion that adulthood often arrives in tandem with increased fragmentation of our social bonds. “Children, they don’t have a hard time expressing their love for another friend,” said Patterson in an interview with NGC Magazine. Among adults, on the other hand, “especially between males,” there’s a tendency to “pretend it doesn’t matter.”

Blurring fact and fiction, Secret Citadel functions as a case study of sorts, tracing the lifecycle of a close male friendship from its origins in childhood to its collapse in adulthood. Patterson has mined his own memories to reconstruct a fictionalized narrative of his relationship with an influential childhood friend with whom he lost touch in adulthood, by painstakingly creating miniature models of the sites where their friendship played out. This isn't the first time Patterson has selectively recreated and reinterpreted fragments of his memories. In works such as Monkey and Deer and The Grain Elevator—both in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada—Patterson presents a re-imagined portrait of his family farm and the small town of Woodrow, Saskatchewan.

Graeme Patterson, Camp Wakonda (detail), 2013, 6ft H x 10ft W x 7ft L, wood fabric, mixed material, video/audio. © Graeme Patterson

In Patterson’s The Mountain—also featured in the 2013 exhibition Oh Canada at Mass MoCA—the child subjects come together as embodiments of fantasy mascot-like characters: a cougar and a buffalo (alter egos adopted by Patterson and his friend during childhood play). Patterson’s model of a mountain serves as the site of creative freedom and collaboration.

In Grudge Match, however, the friends have shed their animal forms and bond only through organized sport. Viewers peer through a tiny model of a gym. Made to scale by the artist, the gym features everything from a wrestling ring to a grimy locker room, as well as two wrestlers preparing to duke it out. The gym emerges as a modern-day temple of sorts: a site upon which relationships often play out during the awkward teen years. The fact that sports activities are among the few places in which North American males have historically been encouraged to exhibit sensitivity and emotion isn’t lost on Patterson. “In football games, they’re allowed to go down on one knee and pray for a fallen comrade or whatever; shed a tear and hug each other,” he says.

Patteron’s adulthood is one in which his protagonists drink alone in a model of a bar, tucked inside a player piano built by the artist. His Player Piano Waltz, a piece he describes as “a tomb” to the lost friendship between his two subjects, is a powerful critique on a general lack of creative social spaces in adult society. Long gone are the days of playing in the woods with your friends. Instead, you slide a coin into the piano, ghostly keys produce a haunting melody, evoking the melancholy picture of adults sitting in bars, paying to recall their youth.

“We congregate at bars, and there’s a distance between most of us,” says Patterson. “We don’t really truthfully share our need to be with one another, or at least I feel that.”

Secret Citadel is on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until 30 May 2014.

By Lizzy Hill| March 17, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Lizzy Hill

Lizzy Hill

Lizzy Hill is an internationally published writer, Akimbo's Halifax Correspondent and the editor of Visual Arts News, Atlantic Canada's only magazine focusing on the work of visual artists.


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