Rodney Graham, Old Punk on Pay Phone, 2012, painted aluminum light box with transmounted chromogenic transparency, 92 5/8 x 59 5/8".

Rodney Graham, Old Punk on Pay Phone, 2012, painted aluminum light box with transmounted chromogenic transparency, 92 5/8 x 59 5/8".

Rodney Graham

Johnen Galerie

Rodney Graham, Old Punk on Pay Phone, 2012, painted aluminum light box with transmounted chromogenic transparency, 92 5/8 x 59 5/8".

There’s always a lot of Rodney Graham in a Rodney Graham show. In “Rodney Graham: Canadian Humourist,” however, we often seemed to be seeing the artist unmasked, even though he still loves to slip into someone else’s work, someone else’s role. Yet in many ways this was a classic Graham exhibition: a complex network of cultural and personal references, with the rather inconspicuous photogravure Meissonier with My Thumbprint, 2009, as something like its epitome. Here, Graham reprints an etching of a soldier and his horse by the nineteenth-century French painter renowned for his minutely detailed treatment of military subjects but adds his own touch: A thumbprint has been smuggled into the gyrating lines of the animal’s rear.

Whether literally or symbolically, the grand-master of appropriation puts his stamp on many an artist and oeuvre. To the Tattooist, 2012, for instance, draws inspiration from the typography and spatial organization of Mallarmé’s iconic book-length poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, 1897). Yet Graham’s text piece, a playful allegory about leaving marks, and thus about writing and drawing, is a lot more fun than Mallarmé’s attack on poetic convention: Graham amuses us with a droll battle between comic hero Popeye and an octopus that spills ink on the sailor’s diving suit. Form and content, as Graham reminds us, have drifted apart, the boundaries between high and low are blurred, and modernism has gone pop.

Vathek—The System of Landor’s Cottage, a 2012 reedition of Graham’s 1987 artist’s book, is, on many levels, an annexation of Edgar Allan Poe’s last short story, “Landor’s Cottage.” Graham interlaces his own writing with Poe’s, giving a minute description of the cottage the tale’s protagonist stumbles upon and thereby creating an annex to Poe’s fictitious architectural structure. The result is an intricate series of stories within a story, a bounty of literary references. Large Rattle, 2012, was a moment of relief from all the show’s cultural-historical innuendo. This dysfunctional cello—its f-holes are missing—has two cuff links secreted within it, transforming this member of the string family into a percussion instrument. The work resonates with Two Movements for Prepared Cello, 2010, a video showing Graham, in a mock John Cage–style performance, shaking two cuff links out of a cello, putting them on, and setting the instrument down without playing a single note. Super-Heavy Flute, 2012, ostensibly a recording of a composition by Frederick the Great, takes a similar approach. The musician isn’t breathing into the instrument, but merely tapping its keys, turning the eighteenth-century concerto into something purely rhythmic.

Also on view were four light boxes depicting Graham in various unexpected guises: as construction worker, sous-chef, superannuated punk, and, of course, Canadian humorist. In these works the art-historical references, such as the art-fair-booth drywall with its nod to Abstract Expressionism in Smoke Break 2 (Drywaller), 2012, or the graffiti in Old Punk on Pay Phone, 2012, are a lot more obvious than those found elsewhere in the exhibition. Above all, these photographs can be read together as a prismatic portrait of the artist, showing facets of his role and persona: an amalgam of entertainer, rebel, and craftsman. Graham’s disguises reveal a pensive, melancholic, old-fashioned, cigarette-loving guy who needs a break from his work—and who just might be the artist himself. Let’s have him enjoy his smoke, then, even though in Graham’s universe, the performance is never really on hold.

Astrid Mania