by Katherine Neil

Rodney Graham
A Partial Overview of My Brief
Modernist Career
(2006-2009), 2006-2009

Physical light enters the gallery space much as it enters the eye, or the interior space of a camera, but its luminous nature may also be understood metaphorically, as when someone or something ‘sheds light’ upon something else, allowing it to be ‘seen’ more clearly.

The way light enters and moves throughout the Wing Sang gallery has an effect on Rodney Graham’s work and the way it is perceived by the viewer: in the early afternoon on a sunny day, a shaft of light illuminates a single painting in A Partial Overview of My Brief Modernist Career (2006-9), picking out the rich texture of the heavily applied oil paint with dramatic effect. This single ray of light highlights the painting beneath it as if it were an actor, standing under a spotlight at the center of a darkened stage. As such, the painting becomes the protagonist, a momentary hero of sorts. On the opposite and adjacent walls, Graham’s light boxes, and the images they depict, are reflected by the Gallery’s polished floor, mirroring the illusion of reflection produced in Oak Tree, Red Bluff (1993/2000). In both instances, as artwork meets gallery and the two become integrated, the viewer’s sense of space is affected.

Rodney Graham
3 Musicians (Members of the Early Music Group
“Renaissance Fare” performing Matteo of Perugia’s
‘le Greygnour Bien’ at the Unitarian Church of
Vancouver, Late September, 1977)
, 2006

Graham’s work may be characterized by his deft use of humor and narrative form, which help to draw the viewer in. Yet there is a sense in many of his pieces that there is more than meets the eye; that something is being kept from the viewer. The tangential nature of Graham’s imagination comes through in person; it is easy to see the resemblance between the artist and his work. Dense with references to both art history and pop culture, each piece is a maze of stories, ideas and anecdotes, inside jokes, genuine clues and false leads.

The tendency of Graham’s work to seem cryptic and obscure is sometimes in contrast to the material nature of his work, which often incorporates photography and film, both of which rely on the illuminating power of light. For example, Graham’s Millennial Time Machine (2003), is a work that maintains an aura of secrecy even though illumination plays an important role in its overall effect.

Millennial Time Machine takes the form of a nineteenth century horse drawn landau –a type of four-wheeled convertible carriage– that has been transformed into a camera obscura. Upon entering the carriage the viewer, shrouded in darkness, watches as light enters through a small opening at the back, and projects an image of the scene outside onto a round screen. The image is formed by light as if by magic, becoming more and more clear. However, even as the edges in the image reach their final stage of definition, the story behind the scene that has been reproduced remains unrevealed. The viewer is left to ponder “What does that image mean?”

Rodney Graham
Oak Tree, Red Bluff (1993/2000)

If Graham does conceal information from the viewer, perhaps this directs the viewer’s attention to the process by which they come to know and understand: “[i]llumination is not only literal in Graham’s art…The forest he attempts to illuminate is also the forest of our mind and the forest of our culture.”* By re-contextualizing the familiar, Graham forces his viewer to consider it anew. His work does not deprive the viewer of an answer, but rather prolongs their discovery of it so that they become conscious of their own thoughts as they try to piece it together.

The ‘forest’ that manifests itself in Graham’s work is difficult to navigate, but exploring just one part of it –where there is a clearing, or a spot where the sun breaks through the canopy– is worthwhile.

*Blazwick, Iwona, Natalie Ergino, Julian Heynen, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Darian Leader, Russell Ferguson, Rodney Graham, Matthew Higgs, and Anthony Spira. Rodney Graham. 1st ed. London, UK: Whitechapel Gallery, 2002. Print.