Critics’ Picks

Left: Rodney Graham, Small Basement Camera Shop Circa 1937, 2011, painted aluminum light box with transmounted chromogenic transparency, 71 x 72 1/2 x 7“. Right: 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, painted aluminum light box with transmounted chromogenic transparency, 71 1/2 x 54 x 7”.


Rodney Graham

Vancouver Art Gallery
750 Hornby Street
May 26 - September 30

It is easy to forget how smart Rodney Graham’s work is—in part because of its almost delightfully stupid humor—but, in fact, the majority of it slyly examines his métier. Take, for example, The Green Cinematograph Programme 1: pipe smoker and overflowing sink, 2010, a film (the only one in this exhibition of light boxes) that, Graham claims, explores the Kuleshov Effect. Coined by Lev Kuleshov in 1929, the said effect posits that, in cinema, meaning is made through editing only. When two images are montaged, no matter what they are, the viewer will connect them. The Green Cinematograph explores this by juxtaposing sequences of the artist smoking a pipe with images of a sink overflowing with soap. As with many of Graham’s films, the projector is installed in the room, causing its presence and sounds to become part of the work, which thus becomes not just a humorous anecdote about a negligent smoker but a comment on the way we view cinema in general.

In four of the seven light boxes shown here, Graham uses himself as a model. Betula Pendula ‘Fastigiata’ (Sous Chef on Smoke Break), 2011, for instance, imagines Graham as the title character resting his cigarette under the birch tree also named in the photograph’s title. The title also refers back to his earlier series of upside-down tree photographs that, being upside down, mimicked the inversion an image has inside a camera obscura. See also Small Basement Camera Shop Circa 1937, 2011, which depicts the artist as a pathetic-looking man working in a staged reconstruction of a camera shop and turns on the juxtaposition between the old photographs and the huge print of the light box depicting the camera shop itself. Graham’s work presents more than simple gags or visual puns. Rather, his practice reminds of the ways in which Lawrence Sterne examines the novel in his 1759 book Tristram Shandy: Each of Graham’s images functions like a chapter related to the others in a self-reflexive, humorous, and digressive manner, both making fun of the main character (in this case Graham himself) and exploring how the viewer, or reader, perceives the medium.