Rodney Graham @303 Gallery

JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 large scale color photographs, framed in painted aluminum lightboxes, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are transmounted chromogenic transparencies, made in 2016 and 2017. The single panel images range in size from roughly 45×34 to 107×72, with the larger two and three panel works respectively sized 92×148 and 109×219 overall. Edition sizes are either 3+1AP, 4+1AP, or 5+1AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For the better part of the past decade, the Canadian photographer Rodney Graham has been slowly dissecting the follies and foibles of male middle age. In meticulously constructed scenes using himself as the protagonist, he has methodically built up a catalogue of superlative narrative pictures, each quietly dubious setup filed with incisively understated wit and observation. But unlike the prolific artists that seem to churn out rooms full of work every 18 months, Graham has taken his time, generating his single frame vignettes with patience and care.

In each of his past gallery shows, Graham has unveiled just a few new works from this ongoing project, perhaps only three or four notable additions to the series at any one time, bookended by less compelling filler pictures and still lifes. Back in 2010, he introduced us to his lonely lighthouse keeper, his pretentious recorder player in a 1970s era Renaissance ensemble, and his sunglassed poker player (with an obvious tell). In 2013, he added his drywall installer, his white coated scientist on his birthday (he received a puzzling cactus with balloons), his too old punk rocker, and his bearded kayaker in his pristine wooden boat flanked by a rusting trestle bridge. Like Cindy Sherman’s aging society dowagers, Graham’s characters are earnest in their varied pursuits, and that effort pushes them to the knife edge of knowing, self-deprecating ridiculousness. (And a back and forth pairing of recent Sherman and these works from Graham would make for a knockout female/male dialogue).

Graham’s recent additions to his taxonomy of male roles are no less memorable. In the largest tableaux on view, Graham styles himself as a sleeping antiquarian shopkeeper, surrounded by a dense compendium of knick knacks and would be treasures. Napping in his knit cap with Harry Smith’s esoteric Think of the Self Speaking nestled on his chest, his eclectic offerings feel deliberately selected, each likely supported by an obtusely weird (and potentially fabricated) background story. Totems, hats, baskets, books, instruments, and countess other oddball paintings and decorative items fill the cramped room, the understated intellectual pompousness of knowing everything about these objects hanging thick in the air.

Graham’s groovy 1970s era media studies professor is equally well characterized, and this portrait is one of the single best works of new contemporary photography I’ve seen this year. Holding court (or droning on) in his suede sport coat, turtleneck, and bell bottom cords, he seems ready to hit the rolling VCR for some avant garde film clips as he finishes his cigarette. While the expressively erased blackboard in the background provides some gestural texture, it’s the pitch perfect send up of academia that resonates here. The portrayal is so spot on that we not only see the humor in the situation, but also feel an undercurrent of pity for the cliched, self-important behavior of the teacher.

Dinner Break (Salisbury Steak) is yet another endearingly cutting portrayal, this time catching an aging drummer in his brocade tux jacket taking a break between sets. Sitting behind the drum kit with a knife and fork, he dives into the classic 1960s meal, complete with diced carrots and a beer. The velvet curtains behind him try to imply some luxury, but the whole scene feels subtly tired, the once glamorous Rat Pack aspirations of the jazzman now muted a bit as he grinds out another night of lackluster music.

As Graham has incrementally created this aggregate Tales of an Aging Man template and filled it out with his various fictions over the years, his finely tuned conceptual constructions have moved beyond easy mockery to more complicated emotional terrain, which is why the pictures are getting better. While his Vancouver contemporaries (Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas) have continued to explore the conceptual edges of documentary-like staging (and restaging), Graham has allowed his constructions to become more winkingly fanciful. When he inserts tinges of self-deception, regret, and going-through-the-motions weariness into the mix, he touches on something more universal found in the psychology of aging, and it’s this plausible facsimile of reality that makes the absurdity of his caricatures hit home with such resonant force. Sure, we can cackle at the foolishness on display, but it is the unlikely almost-too-close-to-home believability of Graham’s scenes that gives them their artistic durability.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $180000 and $650000, based on size. Graham’s photographs are only intermittently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $185000.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    “Graham’s groovy 1970s era media studies professor is equally well characterized, and this portrait is one of the single best works of new contemporary photography I’ve seen this year.”

    Terrific mise en scene. The formal framing, the wonderfully balanced organisation (with enough spacing to allow room to breathe), the blackboard eraser marks, the precise colouration, all spot on. Every object is right and in its right place. The touch of levity lifts it above the technical and aesthetic accomplishment.

    I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the best examples of photographic staging not just this year but ever. Probably actually worth £650K!

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