Graham, the subject of a midcareer retrospective at MOCA’s Geffen space, made a name for himself on the international art radar with a series of cinematic narratives that give new meaning to the term “closed-circuit video.” Vexation Island, his breakthrough piece for the Canadian pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale, translated the artist’s musings on futility, desire, perception and communication into a nine-minute slapstick Hollywood costume tautology — structurally elegant, and funnier than Samuel Beckett and Homer Simpson in a crepitating contest. Dressed in Disneyesque Technicolor pirate drag, the artist stars as a hapless buccaneer, trapped in an infinitely recurring universe of gesticulating parrots and tempting, ready-to-fall coconuts. I’ll try not to give away any of the punch lines to Graham’s relentlessly jokey works, but I can say this: Vexation Island is a knockout.
After the acclaim that greeted Vexation Island, Graham pursued a series of
narrative cinematic genre microganzas, first with How I Became a Ramblin’
Man, whose sweet high lonesome sincerity and Hindu-style cauterization of
the romantic myth of Endless Western Expansion utterly belie its superficial
cowpoke kitsch. A cowboy in the wilderness (Graham) sings a Lee Hazlewood–esque ballad of melancholy alienation from contemporary urban life, then rides off into the sunset only to circle round to the same dang campsite, and the same old song again, over and over and over. In 2000, Graham completed his trilogy with the gaudy pantomime City Self/Country Self, in which our hero, split into complementary 19th-century Frenchmen — one a hick from the sticks, the other a bourgeois dandy — enacts a time-distorting act of anal self-penetration just in time for déjeuner.
These three works, which form the nucleus of MOCA’s survey, are installed in a cluster of sonically leaky theaters. Parrot squawks mix with strummed guitars and clattering horse-drawn carriages — even the impressionist prepared-piano tinklings of Graham’s most recent costume drama, A Reverie Interrupted by the Police, seep through from the next room. I like my audio art layered and incongruous, but in work as precisely configured as Graham’s, the resulting pastiche more resembles the mixed auditory overlays in a substandard movie cineplex than musique concrète. And there’s no question that the specific soundtrack is integral to Graham’s work — the titular Ramblin’ song is the artist’s own composition. (He played Spaceland the week before his opening, and stacks of his convincing Rock Is Hard CD are available in the museum gift shop.)
Graham’s singer-songwriter turn in these recent video works is in fact a return of sorts. In the hothouse milieu of the late-’70s Vancouver art scene, he consorted with future Canadian all-stars Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace in a post-punk band named UJ3RK5. Along with these same artists and Ken Lum, he also became part of a tightly knit circle of ambitious, theoretically rigorous, photography-and-text-based image-makers whose spare, droll commentaries meshed smoothly with the dominant late-conceptualist literary artwork of the ’80s.
Many of the lesser-known early works verge on the kind of puritan anesthetic torpor than imbues so much of that artwork. On close examination, though, they are inevitably enlivened by intellectual lucidity, tremendous humor and awesome loops. One could fairly describe Graham’s oeuvre as “text, photography and video that cross-references Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Smithson, Judd, Hitchcock, 19th-century optics, and structuralist film,” which would propel most right-thinking people in the direction of the nearest cineplex. The academies are filled with purveyors of this kind of cultural-studies Rolodex art — art whose overriding conceptual raison d’être is to reference as many intellectually fashionable touchstones as possible in order to give academic writers something to identify (and so be theoretically forearmed against the incursion of any actual sensory experience).
Much of Graham’s institutional support derives from these rarefied climes where actual art objects are considered some kind of clownish adjunct to discourse. But things are not about theories; theories are about things. Graham’s capacity to transcend self-referential dialectics can be glimpsed through some of his less respectable citations — Syd Barrett and Albert Hoffman in his acid-eating, bike-riding reverie The Phonokinetoscope, Kurt Cobain in his beautiful slide show Aberdeen, or The Wicker Man in his video Loudhailer (not included here, sadly), and several works based on the James Bond novels and films. Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Roussel and the Brothers Grimm. Tommy James and the Shondells. This kind of name-checking is sexy, classless, funny and open to new ideas — a personal, creative art-making strategy instead of a lockstep ratification of the canon.
Even more revealing are the works that don’t reference much of anything. The gorgeous, silent, black-and-white film loop Coruscating Cinnamon Granules is as much about scraping spent hash off hot knives as it is about any French film theory. Halcion Sleep consists entirely of a single half-hour shot of the unconscious pajama-clad artist being transported in the back of a van through the rainy nighttime streets of Vancouver. And the haunting, foliage-illuminated-by-police-helicopters surveillance tape Edge of a Wood bends the arc of Graham’s art career into its own loop, recalling such early works as Two Generators (being projected intermittently at MOCA Grand Street theater space) where patches of dark forest were lit with portable industrial lights.
What is revealed is that the real power of Graham’s work has nothing to do with shout-outs to the correct vaporous conceptualistisms (art that uses the clichés of conceptualism without having any actual concepts to back them up) but rather with the affirmation, superseding the despair of ceaseless repetition, of the hard-wired pleasures that are the vocabulary of all art and which have defined art history. I’m sorry, but should our species somehow survive another 1,000 years, nobody will be looking at the art of our era, nodding sagely and murmuring, “Ah yes, Deleuze.” If they’re lucky, though, they’ll still be mesmerized by or guffawing over Rodney Graham willfully chasing his own tale.
Photos courtesy (respectively) Lisson Gallery, London, Musés D’Art Contemporain, Montréal, Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.
RODNEY GRAHAM: A LITTLE THOUGHT | MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., downtown | Through November 29