JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 works—5 paintings (oil and sand on canvas) and 5 photographs (painted aluminum lightboxes with transmounted chromogenic transparencies)—exhibited in 3 rooms.
All of the paintings and the four-panel lightbox are displayed on 4 walls in the southern gallery; 3 lightboxes are on 3 walls in northern gallery, 1 lightbox is in recess space north of northern gallery. The paintings are unique, untitled, dated 2019, and vary in size from 38×31 in. to 85×100 in. The photographs are editioned, titled, dated either 2018 or 2019, and either multi-panel or single panels:
- Vacuuming the Gallery (four panels, edition of 3, 119×294 in., 2018)
- Central Questions of Philosophy (two panels, edition of 5, 48×61 in., 2018)
- Tattooed Man on Balcony (two panels, edition of 3, 109×131 in., 2018)
- Remorseful Hunter (single panel, edition of 5, 89×69 in., 2019)
- Unused Prop: French Telephone (single panel, edition of 10, 23×17 in., 2018)
(Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: “Eureka!” is the exclamation attributed to the Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes as he stepped into his bath and realized that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of his submerged body. Once synonymous with the thrill of an epochal discovery—California adopted “Eureka” (commonly translated as “I have found it!”) as its state motto, a reference to the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill in 1848—the phrase has over the decades acquired an ironic meaning. Shouts of “eureka” these days are most often uttered by deluded numbskulls in low-brow comedies, where any discoveries they make are more likely to be fool’s gold rather than the real thing.
Rodney Graham adds another twist to the art history of the word in his monumental four-panel light box, Vacuuming the Gallery. Another in his series of self-portraits of masculine archetypes, this piece was inspired by photographs of the eminent New York art dealer Samuel Kootz, who played a major role after WWII in promoting Picasso and the Abstract Expressionists.
Kootz was a Virginia gentleman and dressed like a Wall Street banker. I don’t know if he smoked a pipe but Graham has given himself one, of Modernist design, the dark bowl a separate entity atop the silver stem. He wears wire-rim spectacles and is dressed in a ‘40s-period wool double-breasted suit, light gray with thin blue pin-stripes.
In one of the most reproduced documentary photographs of Kootz, he is depicted as a “hands-on” dealer, hammer in one hand as he stands in suit and tie while hanging an unseen painting before an opening. That image seems to have been the impetus for Graham’s giving himself a vacuum cleaner to push around the brown carpeted gallery floor. He tidies up while in an adjacent room an expensively groomed woman (a client?, an art lover?, his wife?, his assistant?) contemplates one of the four abstract paintings on the walls of the austere space.
Were this a glib exercise in the swapping of traditional gender roles and a puncturing of American male pomposity, the joke might fall flat. But every detail in Graham’s tableau’s bears scrutiny. It was only when I moved close to the picture and read the name of the vacuum manufacturer, Eureka, that I laughed.
Modernism may have begun as a revolutionary style but it evolved into a branding tool, applied to sell everything from automobiles and toasters to the sleek, plaited chairs in this dealer’s gallery. Eureka’s designs were generically of their streamlined time—they took a huge market share from Hoover by undercutting its price and by putting the dust bag in front rather than the back—as are the generic abstract paintings on the walls here: a mash-up of Stuart Davis and Fernand Léger that are based on Graham’s (and a computer algorithm’s) interpretation of a 1941 Alexander Rodchenko watercolor.
I’m not sure if this elaborate reconstruction is rueful about a period and place, an expression of personal regret that artists of the Post-Modern generation were never able to be at the forefront of a transformative art movement, or whether he is mocking the post-war euphoria for abstraction in New York circles and questioning whether the value of originality was never all it was cracked up to be. (In an irony Graham may not be aware of but would surely appreciate, Eureka vacuums, once an iconic American brand, are now owned by a Chinese global conglomerate, the Midea Group.)
Graham has just turned 70 and remains a fit, handsome man. With an impressive head of gray hair, he can be many virile types. In the alpine diorama Remorseful Hunter he is a sad, dimwitted character of the sort that Bob Odenkirk might have played in the TV comedy series Mr. Show. The cuffs of his pants are rolled up a little too high. He sits on a fake rock among fake pine trees, his glum expression that of a man whose revelation has happened too late. His rifle rests comfortably on his lap and he wears a fedora on his grizzled head, a sign that he was taught to hunt by an earlier generation, perhaps by his father. It’s as though the hunter had suddenly realized only at the end of his life that decades of killing animals was not really suitable for him. A stuffed squirrel sits at his feet, applauding this change of heart.
A pair of portraits titled Central Questions of Philosophy are done in the style of Bachrach Studios. Graham is again suited in corporate attire and seated in an armchair. Over his right shoulder are a line of books, including the one by the philosopher A.J. Ayer from which the title of the piece is taken. The two portraits are nearly identical except that in the left one he holds a Jack Russell terrier in his lap. How dogs (or their absence) might figure into the mysteries of the mind and language for logical positivism, Graham doesn’t let us know. Nor does he indicate why these are the only photographs here in which he stares directly into the camera.
Tattooed Man on Balcony surveys the scene in front of him from his apartment balcony without our being aware exactly where he might be looking at—the apartment complex swimming pool? a parking lot? It’s not at us, as he is focused vaguely to his left and removed behind a railing that he grips. His body and surroundings, though, are full of tells about who he might be: he’s not as wealthy or cosseted as the grandee with the Jack Russell. The location, Graham has said, was inspired by the pre-fab apartment architecture of Vancouver where he lives. To my eye, however, this character is probably American and ex-Navy: one of his tats reads “DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR.” (Were the man Canadian, as is Graham, the spelling would be “dishonour.”) His toned biceps and the tattooed images of Wimpy’s hamburgers and Olive Oyl suggest an affection for Popeye and the sea. Flanked by an aluminum beach chair, draped in an orange and blue beach towel, and by an orange barbecue grill (cousin in its bulbous Modernist design of the Eureka vacuum), he’s probably been in more than a few bar fights. A can of Pilsner beer sits at his feet.
It isn’t correct to say that Graham’s tableau’s present an “implied narrative,” as he seldom bothers to provide a story to go along with his elaborately art directed photographs. He isn’t interrupting an ongoing narrative when he presses the shutter, as Jeff Wall often does. Rather, it’s the accretion and clashing incongruity of details (stylistic, chronologic, and socio-political) that creates whatever tension—and comedy—there might be in these scenes.
The 5 paintings in the show, which, like the ones on the walls of Vacuuming the Gallery are based on Rodchenko’s 1941 composition, don’t offer much except background atmosphere. They’re more like anodyne props than works of art on their own. Of course, that they are credible as Modernist abstractions and were created on a computer provide another reason to give us pause about the high value placed on originality, as was the Christie’s sale last year of an A.I.-generated abstraction for $432,000.
Unused Prop: French Telephone, the smallest light-box in the show, is another study of a Modernist object that now, through no fault of its own, exists nowhere definite in time or place. Unplugged and sitting on a table in a studio, with its intricately cast metal shell and ear- and mouthpiece (of Bakelite?), the communication device is an anachronism, handled, if at all, by actors, a background signifier for a wealthy household in la Belle Epoque on stage or in a movie.
Graham has a deep affinity for outmoded artifacts and what they can reveal about the past and the present, as he demonstrated most poignantly in Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003), his 16 mm. film of a 1930s German typewriter dusted with flour/snow and projected on a 1961 Italian film projector—two machines reflecting on each other’s obsolescence.
It’s curious that even as Graham has fully embraced digital make-believe in his photography—each of his tableaus was stitched together in post-production from dozens, if not hundreds, of individual images—he has not been drawn to science fiction scenarios. His material throughout his career has always come from a historical engagement with science, art, movies, and music, and technology, and from his quirky responses to contemporary life. He has been making his lightboxes for more than 10 years now, longer than he usually stays with any one mode. Maybe his unique form of arch comedy needs a new, or an old, outlet.
Collector’s POV: The untitled paintings range in price from $19000 for the smallest to $75000 for the largest; the lightbox photographic transparencies range in price from $60000 for Unused Prop: French Telephone to $750000 for Vacuuming the Gallery. Graham’s photographs are only intermittently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $185000.
The hyper detail of the photographs makes perfect sense in what appears to be a treatise on existentialism. Graham seems that extremely rare thing, a genuinely intelligent – and funny – artist who makes powerful pictures. Loring’s 2017 review made me a fan, particularly seeing the ‘media professor’ diptych.