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Graeme Patterson: Secret Citadel at the Art Gallery of Hamilton

Despite its universal connotations, Secret Citadel, a mixed-media installation and video projection by Canadian artist Graeme Patterson, explores the nuances of male bonding and friendship from an intensely personal perspective. The narrative of the exhibition, currently on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, unfolds in four parts featuring two distinct characters—a bison dressed in blue and a cougar dressed in orange—at seemingly disparate stages in life. The exhibition’s aesthetic is quirky, technically intricate, and somewhat menacing despite its playfulness. The detailed maquettes on display, complete with paperclip lawn chairs, fun-fur grass, and Popsicle-stick ductwork, contain mini-projections of the stop-motion animations filmed within, while also breaking a fourth wall of sorts by reproducing the maquettes within themselves. This presentation heightens a self-referential narrative that asserts the artist’s presence and hand. Across the hall, the installations merge in a thirty-minute stop-motion animation that took Patterson over four years to create, accompanied by a complex, emotive score he composed himself.

Drawing on personal experience and memories, the initial installation, The Mountain, traces Patterson’s relationship and his longing to reconnect with his first true friend, Yuki, whose family moved out of town when the artist was nine years old. Patterson represents himself as the blue bison throughout the exhibition, while the orange cougar stands in for Yuki, or later, the idea of Yuki as an idealized, platonic male companion. The Mountain depicts these childhood friends’ homes in rural Saskatchewan with reverence for memory, with the mountain serving as a childlike, mythical representation of the large hill that separated their houses. Fort-like in appearance, the mountain is built on a tabletop and covered in blankets that mimic snow. Inside the mountain, we see the parallel narrative of Patterson struggling to reconstruct these memories; his studio, in various stages of disarray, is laid out before us. In addition to various stop-motion scenes, the houses on either side of the mountain contain slow-motion reenactments of the artist participating in various sports as an adult. These videos, combined with the adjacent installation Grudge Match, perhaps mine the idea that physical manifestations of platonic male friendships are often relegated to sports or other socially accepted activities after a certain age within patriarchal society.

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Graeme Patterson. Camp Wakonda, mixed media installation, 2013. Image courtesy of the Artist.

The most arresting installation in the exhibition, and the one I keep returning to, is Camp Wakonda. Bunk beds set the stage for a disturbing, fiery crash between a car and a school bus, flanked on the top bunks by three scenes within skeletal, house-like structures. Above, shrouded in melancholy and boredom, Cougar chops wood on an endless loop, while Bison somewhat sadistically melts orange and blue plastic figurines with an aerosol can and lighter. To the left, the two figures take turns practicing archery in an abandoned room. Bison is a good shot, while Cougar eventually misses, embedding an arrow in the wall next to the target. When the arrow is removed, Cougar kneels down to look through the hole created in the wall, while Bison goes back to shooting practice. With a growing sense of unease, the viewer becomes aware that Bison’s arrows are slowly straying from the target until he eventually kills his friend Cougar. Behind the crash below, in empty clearings shrouded in fog, Cougar and Bison battle their animal counterparts with crude weapons, and despite their valiant efforts, eventually lose. The emotional resonance of this particular installation is profound. It points to that decisive moment in adolescence where the innocence of childhood and almost all of its associations are lost forever as we succumb to the pressures of the adult world.

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Graeme Patterson. Secret Citadel, animation still, 2013. Image courtesy of the Artist and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

The final installation, Player Piano Waltz, sits alone, centered in an adjacent room. The maquette above the piano features an empty bar with a combination of animated and live-action scenes projected through the windows. When you insert a dollar into the piano, two projections of Cougar and Bison start up on either side of the room, and a solemn waltz composed by Patterson begins to play on the piano. Bison and Cougar jump up and down on small trampolines, recalling a projection in The Mountain in which they did the same as younger incarnations of themselves on much larger trampolines. This time, rather than limbs flailing with glee, the characters appear tired, and even have to stop and catch their breath. Within the vignette, Bison and Cougar aimlessly move through separate modest apartments and the bar below, cloaked with an air of isolation. Despite their close proximity, they never seem to meaningfully connect again as they did in the earlier installations.

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Graeme Patterson. Secret Citadel, animation still, 2013. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Secret Citadel captures the moments of innocence, longing, and disassociation associated with male bonding and platonic friendships, while also thoughtfully reflecting on how close relationships fluctuate as we mature and navigate different stages of life.

Curated by Melissa Bennett, Secret Citadel is on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until January 5, 2014. It will be touring extensively across Canada beginning with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2014.

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