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Features / March 1, 2004

Rodney Graham: A Little Thought

Rodney Graham rises to the occasion of a major survey at the Art Gallery of Ontario Spring 2004

If Rodney Graham was not already one of Canada’s best-known artists, he became one after this past year. A small sampling of Graham’s fall appearances includes an installation at The Power Plant in Toronto, two rooms at the National Gallery in Ottawa, a solo show at Donald Young Gallery in Chicago and a large European retrospective that closed in Marseille after a well-received tour of Düsseldorf and London.

This March, he follows that string of activities with the opening of a huge solo retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “Rodney Graham: A Little Thought” is curated by Jessica Bradley, Grant Arnold and Connie Butler, and will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, before landing in Graham’s hometown at the Vancouver Art Gallery. This exhibition is an ambitious and timely undertaking that will bring together 25 works by Graham in media that are as varied as sculptural installation, text, photography, film, video and music, drawn primarily from the last fifteen years of his career.

Graham is often described as a deeply intellectual conceptual artist. This is certainly true, but the description is a dubious honour. It carries with it the implication of cold, dense and archaic work. (One imagines Robert Smithson’s installations of dirt surrounded by a sea of research notes and calculations investigating processes of cognition and principles of physics.)

To be fair, simple descriptions of Graham’s projects often conform to these expectations. The shed-sized Camera Obscura (1979) he built near Abbotsford, B.C., invited people in to see an image of an inverted tree. Based on the ancient viewing device and drawing aid popular with Romantic artists, Camera Obscura suggests the extent to which our experience of landscape, so crucial to Canadian culture, is mediated rather than “natural.” In turn, this raises questions like: how do we learn to see, what are we editing out and how does that action affect our consciousness? Works like this can be daunting, especially in their historical references, but they are not deliberately opaque. Frequently they showcase more of the humour and even whimsy that align Graham with the conceptual tradition of Marcel Duchamp or even Fluxus.

In Graham’s words, his works are “playing off one another,” so the opportunity to see so many together this year is justifiably anticipated among those who feel his work has not yet reached the widespread audience it should. For instance, the inverted tree photographs have become somewhat of a trademark, visually appealing in their majestic clarity, but still baffling to many viewers. Seeing them alongside a model of Camera Obscura, which triggered Graham’s interest in the inverted tree image, will add a more tangible starting point from which to consider the open-ended series of photographs. In turn, the kinetic bookstand Graham built for a text on the poet Jacob Lenz is meant to guide a process of cyclical reading in which the text is read through connecting, repeating words rather than through narrative. Reading Machine for Lenz (1993) articulates concerns parallel to those in Camera Obscura: an interest in our tentative, often neurotic, inhabitation of this world, the mediation of experience and the expectations we bring to viewing and reading.

Two recent short looping films further this exploration of unarticulated expectations through a more explicit dialogue between works. In a sense, City Self/Country Self (2000) plays off How I Became a Ramblin’ Man (1999). While the 19th-century setting of City Self looks nothing like the Western desert of How I Became…, both are familiar genres that trigger certain expectations for viewers. In How I Became…, Graham appears in a Western sunset riding a horse and singing a cowboy ballad. All the visual trappings of the musical Western are present, but absent are the storyline and supporting cast. Graham seems to acknowledge that he is letting us down, but he offers us pleasure in other forms—intellectual, musical, visual. These are more diffuse than narrative pleasure, perhaps less marketable or predictable, but they are pleasurable nonetheless.

City Self/Country Self, produced by Lisson Gallery, features Graham as two rather predictable characters—country hick and urban gentleman. The film’s scale and production values are luscious and approximate mainstream cinema. This time, there does seem to be a plot as we watch the two characters moving simultaneously and purposefully through the streets. The simulation of a plot culminates when the “city self” proceeds to walk up to the “country self” and kick him in the behind. This soundly ends the parallel with mainstream cinema (although it is probably the best approximation of a cross between a Three Stooges film and a Merchant Ivory production). This seemingly pointless act also marks the end and the beginning of the film after four minutes. Like How I Became…, this film offers much to savour, particularly in its humour and the exaggerated costumes that are displayed as part of the installation.

Not only do the films play off one another in exploring the internal components and external structures of film, but both also play off their original viewing sites. City Self/Country Self was produced for a show in London and references the period productions so familiar in Britain. How I Became… was fittingly produced with Donald Young Gallery in Chicago. In Graham’s tree photographs, the physical and cultural context of the art plays an even more crucial role in the production of meaning. The original Camera Obscura is a site-specific piece and the subsequent tree photographs are imagined, in part, as portraits of individual trees. In a B.C. context, the trees also relate to the current level of anxiety over clear-cutting. That some images are of trees in Vancouver’s Stanley Park marks this directly.

Graham’s explorations around site-specificity are provocative and inventive, but they never seem resolved. Graham’s work opens doors and raises questions more than it fits in neat packages. Therefore, it seems odd that the AGO promises that the retrospective will “feature the evolution” of Graham’s work in various media. I am certain that the exhibition will do much more than this by virtue of its size and the strength of the curators involved. However, to frame the exhibition in these terms, even just as a marketing tool, is a reminder of how outdated modernist ways of thinking about art often prevail, even when they skew our understanding of the work under consideration. Recurring themes and preoccupations are certainly identifiable in Graham’s highly conceptual work, but they seem to haunt his practice rather than evolve. After all, Graham’s film work features characters (played by him) who do anything but evolve as they repeat the same predictable actions in stories that loop endlessly. Viewers who come to Graham’s work expecting to see a linear, progressive development are unlikely to come away with a clear sense of why his work matters. The diversity, complexity and cultural awareness of his work cannot be flattened out or mapped in any simple way, since it is precisely the looping experiments and cross-pollinations that make it so compelling. Trees serve as a rich subject because they carry such a complex web of meanings and metaphors (language, life, etc.). In formal terms, they actually echo his interest in looping and repetition: they repeat themselves as branches grow to resemble roots, an aspect he highlights by inverting them. After September 11, 2001, one of his inverted trees in a group show was described by Hilarie M. Sheets in ARTnews as a metaphor for the nostalgic sepia-toned world that has now been turned upside down.

Graham’s artworks are spaces where seemingly disconnected ideas come together. This drawing-together is echoed in the range of media that Graham employs in his work. His activity as a musician dates back to the 1970s, and he has released several albums. Only recently have his songwriting and singing entered his art practice. An example is How I Became a Ramblin’ Man, in which humour and music provide flexible, accessible languages with which to explore complex and nuanced ideas. Graham has wondered “Whether or not it makes sense as an artwork, whether it contributes to the discourse of art and isn’t just a music video.” In his effort to draw different media into his work, he seems intrigued by, rather than afraid of, the point when his work might slip into that which it parodies and presumably seeks to critique.

Let us hope that the upcoming exhibition generates new and creative considerations of Graham’s work. There are numerous articles on the Vancouver School of photoconceptual artists. However, the brilliant and influential critical supports that artists like Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas and Graham have built for their practices should in no way prevent others from engaging with the work on different terms and for different purposes. Theoretical, critical and historical writing about contemporary art should be respectful, of course, but it cannot continually take its cues from artists, as is too frequently the case in Canada. From Graham’s own acknowledged interest in Romanticism has flowed essay after essay that locates his practice in a critique of Romanticism.

Where are the essays that probe the relationship of Graham’s artistic strategies to recent feminist practice? Feminist art critics often make reference to a Vancouver “boys’ club,” and yet both Graham’s subversive use of humour and his casting of himself as the central character in his work echo recent feminist art practice. (The parallel with Cindy Sherman is perhaps the most obvious, given that both artists inhabit roles that seem to suffer from arrested development.) At the AGO, a model of Graham’s 1996 mobile version of Camera Obscura will be on display one floor above Rebecca Belmore’s Speaking to Our Mother, which operates in an obverse relationship between artist and landscape. How might these two portable land installations function in dialogue with one another? Viewers are probably more likely to see that Graham’s work, seen en masse, rewards the time invested. With any luck, introducing a wider audience to a broad spectrum of Graham’s work will attract fresh perspectives.

From the Spring 2004 issue of Canadian Art.