New York

Rodney Graham

Christine Burgin Gallery

On display here were five enormous photographs of ancient oaks from the English countryside, marvelous old trees shot in black and white and printed in color so that barely perceptible hues appeared; however, each was hung upside down, and the effect was dizzying and disorienting because, while enough of the horizon is subtended by the photos so that one cannot help but feel oneself in the scene, still no amount of effort towards dissolving their gestalt would allow one to decompose them into abstract patterns, or even to right them again.

Rodney Graham’s conceit made for a particularly visceral presentation of an idea: the inverted scenes imitate the way in which light is upended on the plate of a camera. The purpose of hanging the images upside-down was to point out the mechanisms involved in apparently straightforward representations of nature, particularly in its most romantic manifestations—in this case the figure of the solitary tree. As in an earlier piece, in which Graham built a giant pinhole camera obscura, dragged it into the countryside, and parked it in front of his subject, the sense of a hidden process reduced to its sensible components was palpable, and the endeavor itself oddly extravagant. To scrutinize the concept of nature and our habits of representing it are not entirely novel undertakings, but Graham’s method of doing so is so forceful, and his examples are so lovely in themselves, that his point was pressed home with uncommon efficacy.

In a second gallery Graham presented two lithographic images, one of Freud and one of Baudelaire, surrounded by text written by the artist, complete with scholarly footnotes. In the past he has playfully tampered with written works by Edgar Allan Poe and Georg Buchner. In this case he makes heavy weather of the apparently coincidental fact that both Freud and Baudelaire wrote pieces in which the question “Are you a doctor, sir?” figures, speculating that Freud’s text is as much a version of Baudelaire’s as it an independent investigation. Whether this is a parody of the critical overinventiveness that psychoanalytic theory tends to inspire or an example of it, I can’t say, though Graham’s suggestion here that narrative is a form of seduction is plausible enough in any case.

James Lewis