Rodney Graham

Donald Young Gallery

Post-arcadian, neo-romantic, and curiously classical, Rodney Graham’s seemingly contradictory investigations of nature negotiate the seditious terrain between criticality and homage. His signature large photographs of inverted trees (perhaps less an inversion than a dismantling of the retinal gymnastics our eyes perform and of the pinhole mechanics of photography) offer peaceful disruption and a cunning nod to the ways that art has always made nature into a complex site of desire and exploitation. In the 1998 “Welsh Oaks” series on view, Graham presents images as traditionally composed as those of any academic plein-air painter of a century ago. Placed in taut relation to the edges of the pictorial image against a low horizon line, his isolated trees are the subjects of determined and precise portraits. Graham opts here for oaks bereft of foliage, the annual cycle of arboreal mini-death dutifully suggested, as are the formal relationships among twig, branch, and trunk.

Presenting the trees upside down slows up access and intensifies seeing. Graham’s inversion is not subversion, but a kind of reinvigoration, an opportunity to revisit territory so representationally drained by the history of art as to be otherwise almost impossible to contemplate. By their framing and display, Graham’s trees take on some of the moribund aspects of neoclassicism—an impassive grandeur and timelessness—as well as an existential attitude of silence and solitude. That all this is somewhat silly, an overlaid, heavily constructed fantasy of nature, does not undercut our recognition that this kind of language continues to be deeply rooted in our vernacular.

Graham continues his examination of nature as a locus of fear and longing in two video/sound installations. Projected on the wall in an unlit room, Edge of a Wood, 1999, starts in total darkness with the staccato sound of helicopters, as if a high-tech, nighttime pursuit were under way. Then searchlights begin to scan trees at the edge of a forest, ineffectively penetrating the dark woods. Graham here revisits the forest as a site of fear and mystery, a precivilized territory impervious to surveillance and intervention.

How I Became a Ramblin’ Man, 1999, mines the rich mythographic material of the Western. Filmed in sepia-tinged Cinemascope, the video follows a cowboy on a solitary ride and includes lots of long shots of his back with his guitar slung over his shoulder, the clip-clop of his horse’s hooves providing a soothing rhythm. Somewhere by a shady river, he dismounts and treats us to a ballad about freedom and the journey. Here Graham captures the hyperrefined zone between the romantic and the absurd that makes up so much of the fantasy of the Western.

Graham makes palpable many of the conflicted zones of what is described as “nature,” offering his observations on the historical legacy of its representation and its surprisingly constant ability to suggest diverse metaphors for human nature. At times wistful, at times caustic, his work exposes the complex and fundamental machineries by which nature is not only lived in, but lived through.

James Yood