A graying man sits dejectedly in the oak-lined booth of a bohemian bar, drinking a pint. Above the velvet-upholstered bench on which he crouches hangs a salon with Cubist paintings – works in the style of Picasso, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall. The man is artist Rodney Graham, who died of cancer at the age of 73, or at least Graham, who plays one of the many characters featured in his long-running series of carefully constructed photographic portraits.
Artist in Artist Bar, 1950s (2016), the cinematic photograph reproduced as a lightbox, bears all the hallmarks of the Canadian: rich in artistic and literary references, rich in humor and produced with extraordinary effort. Graham spent six months painting each of the works in the pub scene, painstakingly refining their 20th-century style.
“When I create a lightbox with a character, it’s not really a methodical approach, it’s not part of my rich imagination,” he said. “I want to do just enough to make the character believable, but I’m not creating an elaborate backstory.”
Graham’s work ranged from photography to sculpture and painting to a series of “reading machines” in which he manipulated text and scores to produce endless, repeating narratives. He achieved international fame with Vexation Island, a nine-minute film that was shown on a loop at the 1997 Venice Biennale. It begins with a long aerial shot of an idyllic island steeped in tropical sun and color. Eventually the camera lands on Graham, unconscious and in the guise of a pirate. He has a bloody laceration on his forehead. He stirs, gets up confused, turns around and shakes a palm tree. A coconut detaches and falls on his already bloodied head, and the pirate collapses into the position the viewer first encountered him, resetting the narrative. In addition to the Robinson Crusoe allusion, critics were quick to spot references to Sigmund Freud and Gilles Deleuze with their philosophical questions about desire and the unconscious, and praised both the work’s Sisyphus melancholy and its Buster-Keaton-style physical comedy.
“It was a pivotal moment for me,” he told the Guardian in 2017. “I put $50,000 into it and through a contact I had in Hollywood managed to get all these film technicians to fly to the Virgin Islands and work for free. I just went for it – and got into huge debt to do it – but it changed my work dramatically.”
Born in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Rodney was the son of Janet (née Golos), a school librarian, and Richard Graham, a buyer for a lumber company. He had “a vague idea of becoming a writer or an artist” and at the age of 19 began studying art history at the University of British Columbia. He then studied at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and began playing in a band with his teacher Ian Wallace and fellow artist Jeff Wall. UJ3RK5 (pronounced “You idiot”) produced an EP and won a support slot with Gang of Four when the post-punk band came to Canada.
His first solo exhibition in 1979 took his mind off that burgeoning music career (although he formed the hobby Rodney Graham Band in the 2000s and released five albums) and featured a room-sized camera obscura built in front of his parents’ home that the viewer became shown the image of an upside down tree. The upside down tree continued as a motif, Graham inspired a series of photographs through its use in science textbooks explaining how optics work. “You don’t have to delve very deeply into modern physics to realize that the world is not what it seems, according to science. Before the brain puts it right, the eye sees an upside down tree, as it appears on the glass back of the large format field camera I use,” the artist explained.
Over the next decade and into the early 1990s his work was similarly complex when he created a series of ‘reading machines’, sculptures containing excerpts from books by Georg Büchner, Edgar Allan Poe, Freud, Ian Fleming and a few others , to which Graham either added additional scenes or rearranged them to create endless narrative loops. “The earlier work was very conceptual,” Graham later commented. “I got tired of telling the backstory or having to explain it all the time.”
He enjoyed solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario (1987), the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (1989) and the first of several at the Lisson Gallery, London (1993) and the 303 Gallery, New York (1995), but his pitches to those of the National Gallery of Canada, owner and commissioner of the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, were consistently rejected. Frustrated, he eventually applied with a proposal for a series of reverse photographs of Canadian trees, hoping to evoke the curators’ patriotic spirit. It worked, but Graham was desperate. Instead, he builds on the absurdity present in his only other previous foray into video, Halcion Sleep (1994), in which a drugged Graham is shown unconscious in the trunk of a car being driven to his house and much to the dismay of the National Gallery, he began work on Vexation Island. “They were crazy,” he recalls. “But I could have come up with a damn better idea.”
Two years later, awarded, the artist had a solo show at the National Gallery and Vexation Island toured internationally, showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami that year and at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2002. This London exhibition included other looped video works, such as How I Became a Ramblin’ Man (1999), in which Graham rides horses through the desert singing a cowboy ballad, and City Self/Country Self (2000), in which the artist is a Parisian Dandy of the 19 proceeds to kick a pawn, also played by Graham, to the ground. In the Whitechapel, Graham also made a version of his first camera obscura sculpture, this time in a replica of a 19th-century American mail van, inviting the viewer to gaze through the image of an inverted palm tree.
Other characters were developed through the lightbox works. For his 2017 exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead, titled That’s Not Me, Graham performed The Avid Reader, 1949 (2011), a self-portrait in which he, in period clothing, reads the taped newspapers covering the window of a shop (the the artist’s then-wife, Shannon Oksanen, strolls by elegantly dressed). The artist remained insatiable in his use of reference material. In the same exhibition he showed Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour (2012–13), in which he recreated an 1871 painting by Thomas Eakins of a canoeist, and After Braque (2016), in which he depicted the French painter Georges Braque at play imitated the accordion. In 2016, Graham was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
He is survived by his mother Janet; Sister Lindsay; brother Alan; and associates, Jill Orsten.