Rodney Graham, Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour, 2012-13. Painted aluminum lightboxes with transmounted chromogenic transparencies; triptych 304 x 554 x 18 cm (119 5/8 x 218 1/8 x 7 1/8 in), each panel 304 x 182 x 18 cm (119 5/8 x 71 5/8 x 7 in). © Rodney Graham. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Hauser & Wirth, Somerset
28 January – 8 May 2023
by JOE LLOYD
Rodney Graham (1949-2022) is everywhere in his lightboxes, but seldom in the same guise. Over here is a sous chef on a smoking break, leaning against a tree and casually toying with his left shoe; over there is an artist in 1960s Italy specialising in web-like abstract sculptures made from pipe cleaners. One day he is the self-satisfied actor/director of a golden age Hollywood period drama set in the 18th century; the next a hirsute, hippyish hermit madly leaping amid the clutter of his yard, spied on by two teens for whom he is a Boo Radley-like suburban legend.
These personages all appear in Getting It Together in the Country, Graham’s current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. They all star Graham as imaginary characters in environments real and constructed. Some of these characters occupy particular moments in the past, meticulously evoked by Graham’s attire and set-dressing. In each, he disappears into the role of an almost-archetypal character from western culture, seldom an obvious stock figure but rather a role that suggests a type, a tendency or a vibe. Graham’s lightboxes cleverly probe our preconceived notions of other people and the roles they play in society.
Rodney Graham, Actor / Director, 1954, 2013. Painted aluminium lightboxes with transmounted chromogenic transparencies; diptych 261 x 368 x 18 cm (102 3/4 x 144 7/8 x 7 1/8 in ), each panel: 261 x 182 x 18 cm (91 5/8 x 71 5/8 x 7 in). Photo: Rodney Graham © Rodney Graham. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Graham died from cancer last October, and the Hauser & Wirth show now serves as a tribute to his life and work. Graham grew up in rural British Columbia and studied in the regional capital Vancouver. There he befriended the young tutors Ian Wallace and Jeff Wall, who would both become acclaimed for their large-scale photographic works. The trio formed a post-punk band UJ3RK5, which had one EP and supported Gang of Four. There was talk in New York of a Vancouver School of conceptual photography that specialised in interrogating the social power of imaginary.
Rodney Graham, Main Street Tree, 2006. Chromogenic photograph, 228.6 x 185.4 x 5 cm (90 x 73 x 2 in). Photo: Tom Van Eynde. © Rodney Graham. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Whereas his peers used photography itself, Graham roved around mediums. He had originally considered studying literature, and many of his works involved manipulating or expanding literary texts. There was painting, sculpture and performance art. For his first solo show in 1979, he recreated a camera obscura outside his parents’ house that showed a tree turned upside down, a reference to how our eyes perceive the world. The inverted oak tree would become a recurrent motif throughout Graham’s career. A late example, Main Street Tree (2006), features at Hauser & Wirth; in it, the tree’s greenery is contrasted with the red, white and blue signage of a karaoke shop that sits beneath (or in this case above) it.
It took until the late 90s for Graham to settle on the two modes that would become his speciality. From 1994, he produced a series of films. In his breakthrough work, Vexation Island (1997), he plays a Robinson Crusoe-esque sailor dozing on a perfect desert island, with only a parrot for company. After some time, he wakes up, spies a palm tree and shakes it to procure a coconut. This attempt ends in painful failure. The coconut thwacks the sailor on the head, and he tumbles back down on to the sand to begin his rest again. The loop then resets. Graham’s sailor becomes trapped in an eternal loop, part-Sisyphus, part-silent comedy stooge.
Rodney Graham. Getting it Together in the Country, installation view, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2023. © Rodney Graham. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Ken Adlard.
The film explores similar territory to that of Samuel Beckett’s mime work Act Without Words I (1957), in which a man in a desert encounters several objects, including a carafe of water, that remain just out of reach. But whereas Beckett’s protagonist eventually refuses to play the rules of the game, Graham’s pirate has no option of escape. For all his film’s humour – and its glittering Technicolor, like an intro sequence to a peak 60s American sitcom – there is an ambivalence at its core. Barry Schwabsky wrote in Artforum: “Is Graham inviting us to become absorbed in his art, like the avid reader in it, or warning us not to? Paradoxically, we have to invent his intention ourselves.”
But it was the large-scale lightbox photographs, which form the majority of the Hauser show, that became Graham’s trademark. These involved an almost obsessive amount of preparation. For The Gifted Amateur, Nov 10th, 1962 (2007), seen last year in London at Whitechapel Gallery’s A Century of the Artist’s Studio, Graham transformed a school gym into a Southern Californian villa, filled with furnishings he had picked up at antique sales. To create Artist in Artists’ Bar, 1950s (2016), he spent half a year painting plausible early 20th-century works to hang on the walls above his character.
Rodney Graham, Smoke Break 2 (Drywaller), 2012. Painted aluminium lightboxes with transmounted chromogenic transparencies; diptych 304 x 368 x 18 cm (119 5/8 x 144 7/8 x 7 1/8 in), each panel: 304 x 182 x 18 cm (119 5/8 x 71 5/8 x 7 in). Photo: Rodney Graham © Rodney Graham. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
The pieces at Hauser & Wirth show a variety of interior and exterior settings. There are references to art history: the triptych Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour (2012-13) consciously echoes a painting by the American realist Thomas Eakins; its lush depiction of the river’s banks seems to challenge paint’s ability to depict the world when placed alongside photography. This is one of four works in a sequence called The Four Seasons, a notion Graham applied in media res after fellow artist David Batchelor commented that two of his pre-existing pieces embodied summer and winter. But the most interesting parallels are more informal. Most of the characters Graham plays smoke. Many of them, such as Graham’s pipe cleaner sculptor and a trio of semi-costumed early music specialists performing in a Vancouver church, are absorbed in their activities, mesmerised by their own art: a neat parallel to Graham’s own practice.
These works reflect on how photographic images manipulate our understanding of the world, what we see and how we behave. Even Graham’s leaping hermit seems to have inherited his mannerisms from our cultural understanding of the dotty recluse. They show the deadpan humour that can exist in the most everyday scenes. And they capture the sheer sumptuousness of high-spec photography, one that we often forget in the age of ubiquitous smartphone cameras. Although Graham is gone, his characters seem alive still, waiting to resume their lives after their smoking breaks.
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