The clue it seems, is in the title. Rodney Graham’s first major UK exhibition in 15 years showcases his supreme dexterity in manipulating media and deftly manoeuvring between disciplines, using slippery, evasive and deconstructive strategies, to humorous and beguiling effect.
Although billed as a retrospective, the exhibition is not fully all-encompassing, given the breadth of Graham’s expansive oeuvre that spans roughly forty years. It however provides a succinct snapshot of his work’s key concerns by showing photographic compositions separately from moving-image works, over two floors of the gallery.
Graham’s photographs are fictionalised self-portraits he recognisably appears in as the protagonist. Shape-shifting every time to assume the role of a different tragicomic character cliché, the artist performs semi-slapstick scenarios from our collective consciousness. From a jazz drummer eating dinner atop his skins, to a playboy Sunday painter trying his hand at abstraction, Graham quick-changes between elaborate costumes within highly stylised and richly detailed stage-set constructions. These monumental mise-en-scènes are backlit by large light boxes, which illuminate each chromogenic transparency with a warm cinematic glow, crisp definition and vivid colour saturation. Though redolent of Wes Anderson’s idealised filmic imagery, Graham’s awkward deadpan delivery undercuts anything overtly nostalgic.
Whilst these ‘fauxtobiographies’ appear comparable with Cindy Sherman’s corpus, they differ in the collaborative nature of their construction. Rather than as the sole auteur, Graham operates like a film producer, using the photo as a way of coalescing references to his varied interests: mixing art history, cinema and music with quotations from his biography and back catalogue. Simultaneously he employs conceptual art’s aleatoric motif; relinquishing full creative control and authorship over the construction of his own image, by handing the reins to others, who direct him on set and execute the actual shots.
This method is directly examined in the diptych ‘Actor/Director 1954’ (2013), where Graham stands attired as a Régence-era fop afront a gaudy pink and blue backdrop of Versailles in spring. Operating an outmoded three-strip Technicolor camera, he pauses from work as an actor to set up an insert shot of his own hat on a park bench. In a suspended moment, he embodies both the fallacy of genius, and his own unfulfilled ambitions; a Renaissance man out of sync.
Upstairs in a darkened gallery, elements of the aforementioned tableau are spatially enacted in ‘The Green Cinematograph (Programme 1: Pipe smoker and overflowing sink)’ (2010), a moving-image and kinetic-sculpture hybrid. A green 16mm film projector beams out a silent film loop in an emerald tint, whilst its flowing film reel is redirected into a slim annexed forimicarium, where it undulates hypnotically. Footage cuts between shots of a wistful daydreaming Graham puffing his pipe, and a sink bubbling over with mountains of foam in a bathroom. Utilising the Kushelov effect, Graham creates an illusionistic scenario to mock his own navel-gazing.
Indeed, the remaining filmic works on this floor continue dismantling the tropes of cinema, using altered and obsolete projection apparatus. Their whirring cogs provide the rooms only noise, becoming a soporific soundtrack to its otherwise muted films.
Appropriately, Graham appears one last time in noir inversion ‘Halcion Sleep’ (1994), slumped unconscious on his side in pyjamas, rocking gently upon a moving van’s back seats. Once again waiving his agency, Graham excuses himself from the work as a kidnapped and sedated hostage, an autoscopic Houdini escape act that keeps us at arm’s length, unable to pin him down.
That’s Not Me, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 17 March 2017 – 11 June 2017.
Nathan Anthony is an artist and writer based in Edinburgh.
Image: Rodney Graham, ‘Actor/Director, 1954’ (2013). Photo courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.