If an understated sense of humour is one of the hallmarks of modern Canadian identity, there are few who play that role with sharper wit than Vancouver artist Rodney Graham. Whether in the altered mental states or absurdist narratives of his film works, like Halcion Sleep, Vexation Island or The Phonokinetoscope, the nod-and-wink visual puns of his stage-set photos, or, most recently, his ironically edged experiments in modernist painting, Graham consistently upends expectations of art and popular culture with a wry touch. It’s a strategy that has made him a kind of foil to the academically inclined and socially adroit work that Vancouver’s photo-conceptualist school is best known for, gaining him a wide international following along the way. But there is method to Graham’s madness; his works are more than just one-liners.
“Rodney Graham: Canadian Humourist,” a new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery featuring five of the artist’s recent large-scale photo works offers a case in point. Centred on the recent donation of Graham’s 2009 light-box work Artist Model Posing for “The Old Bugler, Among the Fallen, Battle of Beaune-Roland, 1870” in the Studio of an Unknown Military Painter, Paris, 1885, you might think of the show as a “hall of minor fame” peopled by Graham’s favoured character archetype—the everyman. Set in meticulously constructed, film studio–like sets, images of a low-ranking soldier, a sous chef, a photo-shop clerk and a pair of aging intellectuals are all played with self-effacing theatricality by Graham, becoming paradigms not only of fading cultural touchstones, but also of the place of the artist in that shifting scenario.
That might lead one to suspect there’s something darker at play under Graham’s dry humour. “I wouldn’t call him a satirist, or if there is irony, it’s fairly particular,” says exhibition curator Grant Arnold over the phone from Vancouver. “He never takes on a role that’s heroic; often it’s based on either failure or misrecognition, and there’s a deliberate awkwardness that comes out of the theatrical nature of the work.” Whether or not that leaves you smiling in front of Graham’s work, Arnold offers this thought on who the butt of the joke really is: “For the sous chef, he’s always just going to be a kind of assistant; despite his best efforts, he’s never going to get beyond that. You can kind of see this as Rodney’s joke on himself as a kind of sous chef in the art world.”