Rodney Graham: Canadian Humourist
Vancouver Art Gallery
May 25 through September 30, 2012
The humorist and the comedian are very different beasts. While comedians go after insuppressible guffaws, humorists seek a quiet, wry chuckle; a wink and a nod amongst intimates. Rodney Graham both employs and parodies this more oblique—and acutely Canadian—approach to funny in Canadian Humourist, his current exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery. A core member of Vancouver’s internationally recognized photo-conceptual school, he is its most subtly mischievous, known for deftly adorning broad psycho-social commentary with offbeat, ironic moments that tend to feature versions of the artist himself.
At VAG, Graham reinvents himself four times throughout the featured light-box works. The titular image (Canadian Humourist, 2012) is saturated with middle class Canadian-isms: bookshelves in which Sartre rubs shoulders with tomes on prairie landscapes; a wooly and garishly-hued tea cozy; pseudo-professorial garb; most importantly, an attractive hand-woven rug, which motif appears endlessly in Canadian dwellings and repeatedly within this exhibition. Graham figures here as an aging, witty intellectual who has achieved comfortable, if mediocre, success. Determined pride mingles with hints of resignation. In Betula Pendula Fastigiata (Sous Chef on Smoke Break) (2011) his character appears profoundly tired, a man beyond any hope of reaching pinnacles in his chosen field. A small label nailed to the tree under which he reclines bathetically reveals Betula Penduala’s common name: Weeping Birch.
Graham maintains the anti-heroic trope as a cardigan-ed and bespectacled clerk in Small Basement Camera Shop Circa 1937 (2011), and as a fallen soldier in the ponderously titled Artist’s Model Posing for ‘The Old Bugler, Among the Fallen, Battle of Beaune-la-Roland, 1870’ in the Studio of an Unknown Military Painter, Paris, 1885 (2009). These two works also establish a meditation on the relationship between painting and photography that underscores the entire exhibition. In both, the viewer is posited via perspective as the would-be artist. She is either walking into a camera store (perhaps to scoop up a new ‘Baby Brownie’ model) or preparing to paint a rich and involved military scene which has been laid out specifically for that purpose. These disparate but analogous scenarios encourage an intimate consideration of the two mediums. In fact, all of the light boxes here seem to encompass painterly traditions—they are certainly too precisely and symbolically arranged, too posed and still, to refer directly to snapshots. Heroic associations of painted portraiture, as a foil, play directly into the photographically rendered dynamic of mediocrity that Graham presents here. The fact that his practice as a whole straddles both mediums lends emphasis to this intersection.
With the quirky, nuanced approach that typifies Graham’s work, Canadian Humourist embarks on a substantial psychological and art historical investigation. At the same time, it gently ribs the grandiose exhortations of the ego, and the seemingly compulsive (and perhaps ever so slightly pretentious) modesty of the Canadian national character.