With source material deriving from Georg Büchner, Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, the Grimm brothers, Richard Wagner, Stéphane Mallarmé and Picasso, among many others, Rodney Graham (1949, Abbotsford, Canada) never ceases to delve, playfully and theatrically, into the history of the art of our times. The Museu dArt Contemporani de Barcelona
(MACBA) explores the evolution of this fundamental artists oeuvre through his literary appropriations, as well as through his films, photographs and pictorial works. The exhibitions title, Through the Forest, is taken from a key phrase in the English translation made by C.R. Mueller of Lenz, the only work of prose by the dramatist Georg Büchner which gives expression to the romantic subject of being lost in the forest. Rodney Graham became aware of a peculiarity in the text layout: the words through the forest coincided twice when passing from one page to another. He converted this chance occurrence into a narrative loop in which the spectator, in similar fashion to the novellas main character, is obliged to continually retrace his steps. Like the forest with its chiaroscuros, the MACBA retrospective exhibition invites spectators to view Rodney Grahams complex artistic career over and over again through 250 works, which include light-boxes, books, videos, sculptures, paintings, photographs, installations, printed material and music. A significant part of the display, which will go on to visit Basel (Kunstmuseum Basel - Museum für Gegenwartskunst) and Hamburg (Hamburger Kunsthalle), consists of hitherto unpublished work proceeding from the archives of the Belgian publisher Yves Gevaert. In parallel to the exhibition at MACBA, the Museu Picasso de Barcelona presents Possible Abstractions, a project especially created by the artist to mark this event.
Born in 1949 in Abbotsford, a small town in British Columbia, Canada, Rodney Graham and his family moved to Vancouver in 1964. From 1968 to 1971, he studied art history and anthropology, as well as English and French literature, at the University of British Columbia. It is there that Rodney Graham first entered into the most current tendencies of contemporary art alongside one of todays leading conceptual artists, Ian Wallace.
Graham made his first large photographic work, 75 Polaroids, in 1976. This series of snapshots taken during a night-time walk through the forests around Vancouver was exhibited at Pender Gallery in Vancouver; it was Grahams first solo exhibition and marked the beginning of his career as an artist. 75 Polaroids contains elements that would be essential to his later works, namely his fascination with photographic processes, which transform objects from mere representations to autonomous images, and the idea of illuminating places at night via flash. Following this work, Graham experimented with a camera obscura he made himself and used to photograph archaeological sites during his stay at the American Academy in Rome. This line of work culminated in the series Rome Ruins (1978). In 1994, Graham produced a series of Polaroid shots while visiting Montserrat, near Barcelona; at the time, his work was being exhibited at the Fundació Espai Poblenou, in an exhibition to which he later added the new Montserrat snapshots.
In 1984, the groundbreaking exterior installation entitled Two Generators was exhibited in Vancouver. Graham used a generator to produce electrical light, which he then used to illuminate a river near the university campus. A related work, Edge of a Wood (1999), shows a place that is revealed by suddenly illuminating the dark of the night. The effect of the Rheinmetall / Victoria 8, 2003 (detail) © Rodney Graham, 2009 Polaroid technique a brief flash, exposure and slow development of the picture is transferred to an action of illuminating a site that is documented in the film.
The book as an object
Graham also designed bookcases that resembled works of Minimalist art, mostly those by Donald Judd. An early example of this type of work is the bookcase-like object intended for the collected works of Sigmund Freud, on which Graham worked for years. A significant part of this exhibition is devoted to his early works and the development of his oeuvre; to this end, the MACBA is showing the archive of Rodney Grahams former Belgian publisher, Yves Gevaert, for the first time, allowing viewers to make connections between his work and the material in this archive. An assortment of other materials has also been included in the exhibition, and it contributes to the understanding of how Grahams ideas developed. The Judd-like objects for books are derived from book bindings and covers Graham himself designed. Sculptures are created based on the book as object, while concepts are created from their content.
In 1997, Rodney Graham was invited to represent Canada at the International Venice Biennale. For this occasion, Graham made an influential film based on Hollywood movies and the story of Robinson Crusoe stranded on an isolated island. Graham plays one of the main characters and the film, Vexation Island, made him instantly famous in the art world.
From light to film and photography
The exhibition at the MACBA focuses on the films he made later, which, on a formal level, further the tradition of conceptual- text works and light phenomena in terms of themes and motifs. For the film Coruscating Cinnamon Granules (1996), Graham strewed ground cinnamon onto a burner of the stove in his kitchen and filmed the glowing specks; the theatre space in which this film is shown has the same dimensions as the kitchen where it was made. Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003) is an installation of a surrealistic image. Graham acquired an almost unused 1930s typewriter from a second-hand shop in Vancouver. First, he documented the object photographically, in the style of New Objectivity; he then covered it with flour to create a poignant image for words falling silent. Torqued Chandelier Release (2005) is related to the light phenomena explored in the cinnamon film.
The exhibition also deals with the role of the artist. In the film Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong, 1969 (2006), Graham re-enacts a scene from the history of rock music in which a musician throws potatoes at a gong in a sort of performance. In Grahams piece, vodka takes the place of the potatoes; a bottle of vodka is part of the installation. Rodney Graham is interested in these kinds of processes of translation. Something that originated in literature becomes physical as it is rendered in another medium. My Only Novel Translated from the French (After William Beckford, Mark Twain) (2000), in which the French translation of an English text is translated back into English, is a direct example of this.
The theme of the role of the artist is also explored in the monumental triptych The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 (2007). In this installation, Graham is a sleepwalking amateur painter who attempts to reproduce a large-format abstract painting that had obviously interested him when he was studying art. The scene in the light-box piece makes it look like a film still. Graham plays on the art historical discourse of Modernity in which diverse directions are represented. In 3 Musicians (Members of the Early Music Group Renaissance Fare Performing Matteo of Perugias Le Greygnour Bien at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Late September, 1977) from 2006, and even more in the most recent work in this exhibition, entitled Artists Model Posing for The Old Bugler, Among the Fallen, Beaune-la-Rolande 1870 in the Studio of An Unknown Military Painter, Paris, 1885 (2009), Graham continues to re-enact historical paintings.
The Museu Picasso presents Possible Abstractions
The retrospective exhibition at MACBA is accompanied by a special project entitled Possible Abstractions at the Museu Picasso, which the artist has developed exclusively for Barcelona. By 2005, Rodney Graham had started work on a series of canvases later shown at his Berlin-based gallery with the title Picasso, My Master and now on display at MACBA. This exhibition inspired Rodney Graham to begin a new project for paintings based on a popular cartoon published in a mens magazine in the mid-fifties. In the cartoon, two clueless people are standing in front of an abstract painting of their time, asking themselves about the meaning of it. This topic is still a leitmotif and an often-repeated one in discussions about the meaning of contemporary art today. Rodney Graham adopts the figures represented in this cartoon and the visual cliché about how to look at art in order to produce a series of other possible abstractions, a selection of which are now on display at the Museu Picasso. Pablo Picasso himself had been interested in such magazines, some pages of which he drew on or painted over. Rodney Graham pays tribute to this ephemeral part of the collection at the Museu Picasso and challenges the master of modern painting in his own way with this new possibility of abstraction in art.