New York

Rodney Graham, Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, 2018, quadriptych, painted aluminum light boxes with transmuted chromogenic transparencies, overall 9' 11“ × 24' 6 1/2” × 7".

Rodney Graham, Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, 2018, quadriptych, painted aluminum light boxes with transmuted chromogenic transparencies, overall 9' 11“ × 24' 6 1/2” × 7".

Rodney Graham

One could not help but marvel at the formal and technical mastery required to produce the mammoth four-section light box that dominated Rodney Graham’s latest show at 303 Gallery; nor could one fail to be amused by its subject matter. Measuring roughly ten feet high by twenty-five feet wide, the picture boasted an alluring glow so even, and a resolution so sharp, as to rival the implausibly crisp hyperrealist sheen of the iMac retina screen I’m staring into as I type these words. The highly—yet seamlessly—digitally manipulated image floating atop this triumph of photographic representation depicted a grizzled, pipe-smoking Graham dressed in a fusty gray double-breasted suit while vacuuming the plush carpeted floor of a typically tony midcentury apartment–style art gallery. The picture’s somewhat flattened panoramic perspective afforded the pellucid display of a suite of generic early modernist abstract paintings created by the artist, one of which is surveyed by a conservatively dressed woman in the far-right frame. Several more such deftly executed, paradigmatic abstractions accompanied the backlit tableau in real space, completing the comedic meta-effect. The show’s press release informs us that the image is loosely based on a 1949 photograph of New York dealer Samuel M. Kootz lounging amid an array of Picassos, and that the paintings are essentially elaborations on a digitally reconstituted Rodchenko drawing. But such specifics matter less in Graham’s picture than the attendant air of familiarity that calls forth gauzy Life magazine shoots and cinematic memories, allowing us to subjectively narrativize the classically high-cultural scenario.

In the gallery’s adjoining rooms hung more light boxes—variously sized but all considerably smaller than the aforementioned colossus—each presenting a meticulously constructed vignette of an archetypal situation. Tattooed Man on Balcony, 2018, for instance, depicts the artist as an aging rocker sporting black boots, cuffed jeans, pompadour hairstyle, and a partially unbuttoned short-sleeved shirt. The sleeves are rolled up an inch or two, per the operative style, to further reveal an abundance of fading, cartoonish tattoos and once impressive, we assume, biceps. The standing figure stares outward, blankly, from a low-rent landing. One immediately imagines a backstory of misspent youth, lovelorn regret, and, given his still generally cut appearance—the remarkably well-preserved and photogenic seventy-year-old artist has been assisted here, he recently confessed, by a little Photoshop slimming—a hard-won and possibly tenuous dignity. Elsewhere, Remorseful Hunter, 2019, placed a rifle-toting, lumberjack-garbed Graham in a woodsy setting, mid-respite, appearing doleful and pensive. “What does it all mean,” we ask on his behalf, “all this killing and manly bravado?” He seems abject, defeated, mired in an existential crisis. A nearby squirrel looks on, unafraid, its cute, animal-kingdom proxy heightening the pervasive sense of tragicomic grief and futility.

Graham is a jokester. A certain brand of fictive, self-deprecating drollery or loser humor plays an important, if not central, role in much of his work. It serves not only to win the sympathies of his viewers but also to open their eyes to culturally constructed falsehoods and subterranean forces. Jokes, like dreams—both cinematic and neurological—provide portals to the social and psychological unconscious, ushering in the taboo, the indecorous, or simply the unpleasant or unacceptable. Twenty-one years ago, Graham had this to say about one of his main motivations for undertaking the oft-cited 1994 work Halcion Sleep, a single-shot film of the artist slumbering in his pajamas, after a double dose of the titular sedative, in the back seat of a van as he was driven from the city limits to the center of town: “I wanted to enact the scene of my earliest recollection—that of briefly awakening from a luxurious and secure sleep on the back seat of my parents’ car on the way home from some family trip before drifting back to sleep.” We all know that moment of sweet, natural narcosis, where subconscious phantasm encroaches delightfully upon conscious reality. It is in these oneiric interstices and the psychic fissures enabled by humor that the pleasure and power of Graham’s work resides. In every dream and joke, a truth.

Jeff Gibson