Rodney Graham, A Partial Overview of My Brief Modernist Career (2006–2009), 2006–09, oil on linen or oil on polyester silkscreen mesh framed, in 40 parts ranging from 45.4 x 39.1 cm to 102 x 91.8 cm. Installation dimensions variable. Photo: courtesy of the Rennie Collection
It seems fitting that three Vancouver galleries joined forces this year to exhibit works by Rodney Graham. One venue would seem almost constraining for an artist who draws upon a multitude of inspirations, and who has been variously described throughout his career as a filmmaker, photographer, sculptor, conceptualist, and even a rock singer.
The idea for a series of exhibitions was initiated by the Rennie Collection. One of the largest collections of contemporary art in Canada, it houses work by more than 200 artists of national and international renown, including a substantial body of art by Graham. “We are never interested in just one moment,” says Bob Rennie, the man behind the collection. “We are interested in the journey of an artist.”
Rodney Graham, Oak Tree Red Bluff (1-8), 1993/2000, eight black and white photographs, framed: 82.2 x 105 cm each; unframed: 74.9 x 97.8 cm each. Photo: courtesy of the Rennie Collection
Art lovers currently have a chance to discover Graham’s journey at Wing Sang, the Rennie Collection’s private museum, and site of the exhibition Rodney Graham: Collected Works. Not so much a survey as an opportunity to delve into different facets of Graham’s oeuvre, the exhibition — which Graham curated himself — exclusively features works from the Rennie Collection. That includes the majestic series of photographs, Oak Tree Red Bluff (1–8). Depicting a series of Welsh oaks seen upside-down, they are an outgrowth of Graham’s fascination with the camera obscura.
But the oak tree photographs aren’t the only works that engage with the techniques and traditions of art history. Graham’s light box entitled 3 Musicians (Members of the Early Music Group “Renaissance Fare” performing Matteo of Perugia’s ‘le Greygnour Bien’ at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Late September, 1977) is a nod to Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians. Meanwhile, another light box, The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 — a version of which can also be found in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada — references the work of painter Morris Louis.
Rodney Graham, 3 Musicians (Members of the Early Music Group "Renaissance Fare" performing Matteo of Perugia's 'le Greygnour Bien' at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Late September, 1977), 2006, three transmounted chromogenic transparencies in painted aluminum light boxes, each: 306.4 x 118 x 17.8 cm; overall: 306.4 x 375.9 x 17.8 cm. Photo: courtesy of the Rennie Collection
Part photograph, part painting and part performance art, The Gifted Amateur sees Graham casting himself as the lead and exploring the role of the artist — something he also does in other works on view at Wing Sang, often to humorous effect. Take the 16mm film, Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong (1969), for example. Based on an anecdote about the drummer from Pink Floyd throwing vegetables, Graham plays a fictitious Fluxus artist who attempts to hit his target, all before an audience. While the sound of a potato striking the gong is — on the one hand — strangely satisfying, the film also evokes some anxiety about the repetitive, looping tasks in which we can find ourselves.
Rodney Graham, Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong, 2006, super 16mm b/w film, digital stereo sound, super 16 xenon projector with looper, amplifier, two speakers, one sub-woofer, synch electronics, bottle of potato vodka and vitrine, two paintings, print 4:20 minutes, continuous loop; painting: 154.9 x 154.9 cm; print: 55.9 x 45.1 x 3.8 cm. Photo: courtesy of the Rennie Collection
One of the standout works of the exhibition, however, has to be Graham’s A Partial Overview of My Brief Modernist Career. Comprised of a wall of some 40 paintings hung salon-style, and a ladder that almost touches the ceiling, the work is a captivating exploration of Modernism’s legacy.
“We tend to bring in works that are tough, and that keep giving back. If you bring in a work that is fully and easily understood right away, you get bored of it,” says Rennie, who goes on to say that this is not the case with Graham’s art — explaining one of the reasons why the Collection has decided to acquire a large quantity of his work.
Referring back to Graham’s series of inverted oak trees, Rennie notes that, although they can be pleasing to the eye, they can also be seen as an exploration of humankind’s impact on Nature, or a comment on perception: “how the eye sees everything upside-down, but the brain turns it around.” Graham’s work has multiple layers and meanings, but the artist doesn’t insist that you understand everything at once — viewers can, as Rennie says, also find in it a quick beauty.
Other Graham works from the Rennie Collection will be on display at the Charles H. Scott Gallery as part of an exhibition opening September 17, 2014. To experience Rodney Graham’s tour of his exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, which took place earlier this summer, please click here.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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