Renaissance man, gifted amateur, jack of all trades—these are the personas adopted by Canadian artist Rodney Graham within an artistic practice that has spanned more than 40 years. Graham’s characterization of himself as a dilettante belies the fact that, as a writer, musician, painter, filmmaker, and photographer, as well as a performance, sound, and installation artist, he is a master of many disciplines. Despite his multifarious talents, photography constitutes the core of his diverse practice; it is the medium in which his practice originated and the technology on which the majority of his works hinge. Throughout his oeuvre of the past two decades, he has often utilized photography to create a cinematic vision, producing a vast array of characters and situations in his studio and beyond. In 1994, Graham appeared in his work for the first time in the performance video Halcion Sleep (1994), while several years later, with the production of his costume drama Vexation Island (1997), he embarked on a decisive shift in his practice whereby he came to figure prominently in what have been called fictional or allegorical portraits.

This exhibition features several of Graham’s recent allegorical portraits mounted in large-scale light boxes. Appearing deceptively simple, these works, upon close reading, thwart easy interpretation; they occupy an interstitial space in which they elude a singular or stable meaning. The viewer should not mistake the figures in these works for Graham himself, for Graham both is and is not the subject of the photograph. Although Graham draws on details from his personal experience and his knowledge of art history to produce his images, his characterizations are modelled more on stock characters than on his individual personality. His process is akin to that of an actor playing the role of someone much like, but not quite, himself.

In Basement Camera Shop, Circa 1937 (2011), Graham portrays a sales clerk standing behind the counter of a modest photography store. In Actor/Director, 1954 (2013), Graham, clad in 18th century costume on a set resembling the garden of Versailles, sets up a shot with a three-reel Technicolour motion-picture camera. And in Pipe Cleaner Artist, Amalfi ’61 (2013), Graham foregrounds the pipe cleaner, a material associated with handicrafts and child’s play, as the protagonist’s central medium. At work in his studio, the pipe cleaner artist assumes a languid, almost meditative, pose, reminiscent of someone knitting. The particularities of this representation suggest that the artist might simply be a hobbyist. As such, Graham asks us to consider just what it is that distinguishes the master from the amateur.

These recent works provide a valuable opportunity to reflect upon the representation of labour in Graham’s work—a representation that embraces the oppositions of work and leisure, city and country, the lofty and the lowly. Quintessential examples of his allegorical portraits, they demonstrate the ways in which Graham, with his typical wry humour, questions inherent assumptions about what constitutes productive or meaningful labour and consistently conveys what it means to be a working artist.

 

Co-presented with Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art

Curated by Scott McLeod