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Museum Frieder Burda opens exhibition of works by Rodney Graham
Museum Frieder Burda, Ausstellung "Rodney Graham" © Rodney Graham, 2017 Foto: Volker Naumann

BADEN-BADEN.- The decision to place one’s biography at the service of art is always a decision in favor of a certain role. The dandy or the Bohemian, the accomplice of the downtrodden or the courier of the privileged – as with all professions, being an artist is accompanied by its own clichés. The Canadian artist Rodney Graham is a virtuoso when it comes to staging these role images – and at the same time, he investigates how individual identities can form from socially ascribed roles. Profession as an obsession. And always in the lead role: himself. His medium: the classic advertising light box. Thus, the meticulously staged antique dealer or the modern cowboy becomes his own advertising medium. But behind the smooth, shiny surface of illuminated photography, behind the perfectionist scenography, there always lurks a touch of melancholy that tells of the burdens of always playing one’s role perfectly in the theater of life. We seldom see a smile; the object rarely looks us in the eye. He happily drifts off into nothing, into the distance – or into the past.

Hardly any other contemporary artist has devoted himself to searching for traces left behind by different ways of life in the 19th and 20th centuries as Rodney Graham, born in 1949 and now living in Vancouver. Since the 1970s, he has been working on a rhizome-like, conceptual oeuvre that has never shied away from new jumps in time or genre. His work combines film, photography, installation, performance, painting, literature and music. Graham, who, along with artists such as Jeff Wall or Stan Douglas, belongs to the “Vancouver School”, appropriates styles, trends and discourses from the era of romanticism through to post-modernity, commenting or expanding on them or rethinking them with an understated irony. His sources of inspiration range from greats such as Sigmund Freud, Richard Wagner or Edgar Allan Poe to pop icons like Kurt Cobain. In the process, he simultaneously reveals and conceals his own artistic self-image, attitudes or feelings.

In close co-operation with the artist, Museum Frieder Burda has now succeeded in staging the hitherto most comprehensive exhibition of Rodney Graham’s photo light boxes. The light boxes, a central medium in his complex oeuvre, range from 2000 to the present. “Graham’s manifold selfstagings are always at the center. He always gives the impression of a melancholy time-traveler, a modern Buster Keaton, negotiating the trials and tribulations of modern culture and in doing so, slipping into the role of producer, observer or mediator,” says Patricia Kamp, curator of the exhibition, about Rodney Graham’s work.

The exhibition begins on the ground floor of the museum with the monumental triptych “Antiquarian Sleeping in his Shop” from 2017. In it, Graham portrays a collector who has nodded off while reading in his store, which is decorated with antiques and curios. Graham collected the props for the project himself in the antique and bric-a-brac shops of Vancouver. His work can be viewed as a multi-layered allegory for a retreat to eclectic styles and nostalgic inner worlds.

His “Media Studies 77” (2016), which is being displayed on the mezzanine, seems like a parody of media research and academia in the post-factual world we live in today. In this case, Graham adopts the role of a dandy-like professor. If the medium is the message, as postulated by the Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan in 1964, it, along with its entire discourses, has been reduced to a simple surface. The screen is dark, the blackboards are blank; the only message in the entire room is the self-staging of the teacher. At the same time, Graham transforms this scene into a surface composition with abstract and monochrome elements.

Upstairs in the museum are key works from the last decades – light boxes, many of which feature Graham’s best-known incarnations. They include, for example, the roles of the amateur painter, the camera salesman, the craftsman, the rambling man and the cowboy. All of Graham’s light boxes, including his still-life-like arrangements, teem with references. He constantly undermines the lines between high and mass culture and connects banal, everyday contexts with elaborate allusions to art history and intellectual history.

“By translating linguistic images and etymologies into an illuminated pictorial language, Graham outs himself as an homme de lettres, who moves, almost like a sleepwalker, between artistic genres, methods and reference figures.” That is how Dorothea Zwirner, connoisseur of Graham’s oeuvre, describes his work in the elaborately produced catalogue (Price: €36 in the Museum). Museum founder Frieder Burda has this to say about the latest exhibition: “Our show with Rodney Graham is the next chapter in our exhibition series devoted to photography. The exciting appearances of Gregory Crewdson, JR and Andreas Gursky in our museum have already born testimony to the fascinating impulses that can emerge from photography.

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