Thursday, February 10, 2005
Yet Another Art Review -- from this week's Terminal City

"Little Thoughts Gone Astray"
by Christopher Brayshaw

Rodney Graham: A Little Thought
Vancouver Art Gallery, 750 Hornby
To May 8

Who is there that does not love a tree?
I planted one, I planted three.
Two for you and one for me.

-- Rodney Graham, Theme From the Phonokinetoscope

Rodney Graham's video loop, A Reverie Interrupted by The Police, begins with a convict, played by Graham, being led on stage by a uniformed policeman. Graham's job, at least for the loop's eight minute duration, is to sit at a piano and play, despite his hands being cuffed together. So play he does, sometimes fluidly, other times jaggedly or minimally, and, on occasion, angrily or resignedly, repeatedly opening and slamming the case shut to create some impromptu John Cage-style percussion. All the while, Graham keeps casting hilariously surreptitious looks back over his shoulder at his guard, looks that simultaneously announce, I'm fucked, and, Maybe if I just keep on going….

In actual fact, not much happens. The cop stands stolidly, chewing his moustache, outwardly unmoved by Graham's performance, escorting him off screen at the eight-minute mark, then back on again as the video loops. The piece's lush lighting and expressionistic camera angles invoke the basic conventions of narrative suspense, only to collapse them. Will Graham pull a gun out of the piano case? Will an anvil fall, beaning the cop on the head? After the second or third loop, you realise Graham's musical performance—flawed, halting, repetitive, made under desperately unhappy circumstances by an "artist" whose mind is obviously elsewhere—is the piece's real point, a brief burst of creativity worked out under tense and soul-trying circumstances. The video is alternately unsettling and touching, premised as it is on the notion that circumstances are awful, and unlikely to improve any time soon.

In a funny way, A Reverie lays out as clear a case for Rodney Graham's artistic importance as anything else in his career, which has largely been predicated on doing one thing after another, shifting subjects and media with every new project. Thus the film and video loops, costumes, and altered books, the faked art-historical works, paintings and drawings, the appropriated and rewritten texts, "lighting events," bookmarks and book sculptures, CDs and music videos and performances. Looking back at this variety, it's hard to dismiss the idea that these formal changes are attempts to avoid falling into a fixed way of doing things, or of acquiring a "signature style."

Like A Reverie's musical performance, Graham's career has high points (the book works; the photographs; most of the films and videos) and lows (the paintings and mixed-media drawings; the editioned objects based on the more complex films and videos), but what strikes you most, looking over the assortment of objects collected on the VAG's second and third floors, is the conceptual consistency of Graham's artistic inquiries, and the immediate pleasure his works provide.

Used with regard to contemporary art, pleasure is a funny word. Older art—a Manet bouquet, say, or a 16th century Dutch still life—pleases even as it instructs; the works' conceptual and sensuous qualities form an emulsion that cannot be easily separated into its constituent parts. Much contemporary art, on the other hand, desperately seeks to please its institutional patrons, critics, or potential purchasers. The conceptual and formal austerity of works by socially engaged artists like Michael Asher, Joseph Kosuth, or Art & Language is, in a sense, a reaction against a climate in which contemporary art is wholly integrated with fashion, entertainment, and consumer culture (Witness Takashi Murakami's designs for Louis Vuitton, or the co-option of Gillian Wearing's Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say into countless advertising campaigns).

So when I say that Graham's work pleases me, I mean that its humor, wide-ranging sources, and quirky formal qualities compel me to spend time with it, and that time, in turn, opens up space to reflect on things—my own behavior, say, or my relationship to nature—which the late capitalist culture I live in would prefer me to ignore.

These speculations, in turn, don't easily assimilate to any preexisting ideology; they're speculative, almost free-form, and perhaps this explains why Graham is unique in the long-term hold that his work has exerted over my imagination. There are individual works of art that move me far more than any work of Graham's—Gerhard Richter's Baader-Meinhof paintings, say, or Vija Celmins' night skies, or Jeff Wall's Volunteer—but when pressed by friends or critics to name an exemplary contemporary artist, I almost always name Graham. He has undoubtedly inspired many local artists—Tim Lee comes to mind; so too, in a more sophisticated and tangential way, do Althea Thaugerber and Neil Wedman—but I can't imagine adopting him as a "model of practice," as I could Cindy Sherman, or Andreas Gursky, or the Bechers. There are just too many things going on at once in Graham's work. Imitating him would be like trying to catch a school of bright and skittish fish with a single pole.

Many of Graham's early works are "supplements" to preexisting texts or artworks that undercut their sources' authority, often in a hilariously direct way. In the book sculpture Dr. No, the Ian Fleming novel of the same name is displayed along with an extra, stainless steel page etched with a text by Graham "in the manner of" Fleming, which extends a scene in which James Bond lies in bed with a poisonous centipede into an endless loop wherein the centipede scurries over Bond's body again and again and again. Another book sculpture, Casino Royale, conceals a Fleming first edition within a metal housing that looks remarkably like a Donald Judd sculpture, converting the austere beauty of its Judd source into something altogether more craft-oriented, more furniture than sculpture.

Halcion Sleep, Graham's first performance featuring himself, grew out of a dissatisfaction with his appropriations of preexisting things. "Conceptual art opened up possibilities where I could work, collaborating with other people, having things made, supervising the production rather than making it myself. And for a while it was really liberating to work that way. Now I feel it's the end of a cycle for me," Graham told a Chicago Tribune interviewer in 1995

Halcion Sleep is a video document of a performance in which a drugged Graham, clad in an attractive set of striped pajamas, is driven from a budget suburban motel to his south Granville home. This silent, formally austere 26- minute piece is alternately comforting and deeply sad, evoking the nostalgic feeling of traveling in the back of your parents' car as a child, and, simultaneously, the hard-to-shake sense that the performance actually documents a one-way drive that will conclude in Graham's death.

Other highlights? The acid-drenched pop backing up The Phonokinetoscope's trippy ride through Berlin's Tiergarten. Loudhailer's sly nod at Stan Douglas' split-screen, out-of-synch extravaganzas. Aberdeen, a slide piece whose simplicity of execution is totally out of scale with its visual and musical complexity, proof that Graham's talent does not solely depend on expensive technology. And, finally, the Rodney Graham Band. Graham, Dave Carswell, and John Collins tore the roof off the Cambrian Hall last week, transforming Graham's wistfully orchestrated ‘60s tunes into a raucous, hour and a half set of buzzing power-pop. Graham looked a little startled and surprised by all the applause, but it was simply as sustained and generous as his own work.

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