An emphasis on character over storyline is one of the differences between the work of Rodney Graham and his fellow artists of the so-called Vancouver School, post-conceptualists who are known for staged photographs with high production values. Stan Douglas’s preoccupation, for example, is with history; Jeff Wall’s focus is on mundane incidents and situations. Graham’s fictions, however, frequently present protagonists whose circumstances we can guess at but never really know.
As did Graham’s last exhibition at 303, the show consisted of enormous color transparencies set in lightboxes, each work featuring the artist enacting a different persona. While the earlier group of photographs largely focused on stock characters—the lonely lighthouse keeper, the man in a Wild West saloon being made to dance by a pistol-wielding drunk—the four portraits here depict men who, while familiar as types, are also clearly delineated as individuals.
In one picture, an aging punk, complete with leather jacket, scuffed Doc Martins and traces of eyeliner, holds the receiver of a pay phone to his ear in front of a graffitied brick wall. He appears to be listening carefully to whatever news is being imparted, his eyes trained on something outside the picture frame. The largest work, a triptych, is one of two pieces in the show based on mid-19th-century realist painting—in this case, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871, by Thomas Eakins. In the foreground, a man in a wool hat and T-shirt takes a break from paddling a wooden kayak. Behind him are a wooded area, a rusted bridge and a group of shabby factory buildings. The man has turned to look at the viewer with a slightly impatient glance. Those familiar with the genus will recognize him as a certain kind of passive-aggressive, ex-hippie sole proprietor.
The next photograph depicts a drywaller on stilts pausing for a cigarette break. The wall behind him has been prepared but not yet painted. He stares at the floor, lost in the pleasures of nicotine and perhaps the music playing on his boom box. The last work is also based on a painting, this one Carl Spitzweg’s The Cactus Enthusiast of 1850. Here, Spitzweg’s foppish 19th-century scholar has been replaced by a tired-looking scientist in a lab despondently regarding a potted cactus with a bunch of colored helium balloons attached to it by long ribbons. Rather than a treasured specimen, it is clearly a perplexing and awkward gift.
Each man’s gaze—inward, outward, focused and unfocused—seems to sum up a different aspect of the artist’s relationship to the world, and each photograph a different kind of painting: swirling graffiti standing in for expressionist art; a Sheetrock wall for the modernist grid; an urban river for any industrial landscape since Seurat’s; and colored balloons for, perhaps, Color Field painting. (If so, it’s something of an inside joke, since one of Graham’s earlier alter egos, the “gifted amateur,” was loosely based on Washington Color School painter Morris Louis.)
Despite their sometimes cryptic references, Graham’s fictional self-portraits are anything but hermetic. Rather, they are accessible, humorous and beautifully crafted additions to the venerable tradition of art about the human condition. But I miss the greater complexity and lyricism of his films, of which I hope more will soon be forthcoming.