Graham Little Probes the Curious Logic of Beauty

A concise and subtle exhibition of drawings and gouaches at FLAG Art Foundation, New York, offers a melancholic meditation on beauty, glamour and artifice

BY Christopher Alessandrini in Exhibition Reviews | 19 MAR 24

There is no formula for beauty, no reliable unit of measure. But there are suggestions of some underlying logic in Graham Little’s Untitled (Sunflower Head) (2022), an austere vanitas of a decaying sunflower blossom, its seed-heavy face puckered and dry, stippled with greening rot. Beside it rests a rodent’s skull and the exposed circuitry of a spent machine, half-hidden under a clean white sheet. The image is lean as a riddle. Does it disclose some secret knowledge of the world’s inner workings, a reminder of the impossibly intricate systems that organize reality? Perhaps some rigid grammar – cold, immovable, elegant – lurks beneath the surface of things.

Little’s virtuosic talents are on display across 18 works on paper at the FLAG Art Foundation, the London-based artist’s first institutional solo exhibition in the US. He is known for his depictions of glamorous women, often absorbed in tasks or reverie, adrift in sumptuous interiors. Each of these labour-intensive images takes months to finish, and the artist’s earnest immersion is legible in their passages of rich, persuasive description and dreamlike atmospheres.

Graham Little, Untitled (Hand Mirror) (detail), 2015, gouache on paper, 36 × 29 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Lora Reynolds, Alison Jacques, London, and dépendance, Brussels; photograph: Michael Brzezinski.

Ever since Little encountered Vogue in childhood, photographs from vintage fashion magazines, with their pastiche of extravagant styles and wide-ranging visual quotations, have served as powerful inspiration for the artist. Landscapes and still lifes are nested in muted domestic scenes. Windows and archways frame vistas plucked from different chapters of art history: rolling ridges in the collapsed perspective of Mannerism (Untitled [Mountain], 2021); snow-capped peaks, as picturesque as any Romantic vision by Albert Bierstadt or Caspar David Friedrich (Untitled [Hand Mirror], 2015).

Graham Little, Untitled (Mountain), 2021, gouache on paper, 37 × 35 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Alison Jacques, London, and dépendance, Brussels; photograph: Michael Brzezinski.

Over two decades, Little’s images have grown more narrative. The early coloured-pencil drawings are often single-figure studies against nondescript backdrops – dutifully included here, they lack the ambition and magnetism of his recent paintings. As Little transitioned primarily to gouache, he experimented with a wider range of media; one of the most beguiling works from this phase is Untitled (Parlour) (2014), a madcap performance of evening tea. Our hostess has outdone herself: the scalloped motif on her apron echoes the napkins and tablecloth and continues across her coiffure, a potted cyclamen, a fresh challah loaf. Beyond this tableau of fanatical control, framed between canary-yellow curtains, a mansion looms in a tract of darkening wilderness: a sly rejoinder to the contrived interior.

Graham Little, Untitled (Parlour) (detail), 2014, coloured pencil, egg tempera, and gouache on paper, 43 × 36 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Jonathan Sobel, Marcia Dunn, Alison Jacques, London, and dépendance, Brussels; photograph: Michael Brzezinski.

Staged like mannequins in a domestic pageant, Little’s figures inhabit a precisely patterned universe. In the exhibition’s eye-catching opener, Untitled (2018), a man in a red robe sips from his morning mug and reads the paper. Every detail harmonizes. A bowl filled with plums rhymes with a pair of leather house slippers; a white planter, resembling an upturned chef’s toque, is the distorted reflection of a colossal domed lamp resting on a nearby coffee table.

Despite their pictorial flatness, the vignettes are imbued with a remarkable depth of feeling. Melancholic contemplation is the dominant register; Little refuses any glib exegesis about the moral failures of glamour or artifice. One enigmatic work depicts a fox carcass hovering over a string of indecipherable but vaguely scientific glyphs. Untitled (Fox) (2017) evokes the Wunderkammern of early modern Europe that married high aestheticism with a connoisseurial taste for rarity: a time when knowledge of the cosmos seemed like it could be gleaned from close observation of the natural world – that a certain quality of attention, trained upon the proper subject, might yield insights into a divine order. But Little understands the futility of such desires – for mastery, or understanding. Despite a curious precision, his subtle investigations stop short of puncturing the surface. These enchanted worlds, rendered lovingly, chillingly, are allowed their mystery.

Graham Little, Untitled (Fox), 2017, gouache on paper, 47 × 78 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Charles Asprey; photograph: Michael Brzezinski.

Graham Little is on view at FLAG Foundation, New York, until 4 May

Main image: Graham Little, Untitled (bedroom) (detail), 2021, gouache on paper, 29 × 40 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Alison Jacques, London, and dépendance, Brussels.


Christopher Alessandrini is a writer and critic based in New York, where he works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.