The Painstaking Detail Rodney Graham Puts into Each of His Self-Portraits
I don’t know Rodney Graham, but you could say I’ve met him plenty of times before. Sometimes he’s been a lighthouse keeper; other times a jazz drummer, a hipster media studies professor, a professional poker player, and a smoking waiter. The conceptual photographer (part of the so-called Vancouver School, alongside the likes of Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas) has made a career assuming offbeat personalities that star in intricately assembled tableaux. For inspiration, he pilfers art history, film, pop culture, and scenes from everyday life. In every case, he’s recognizably himself—there are no masks or prosthetic noses involved—and yet perversely othered. The title of a 2017 survey show at the BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art sums up these transformations nicely: “That’s not me.”
The real Rodney Graham, who I met in person at 303 Gallery in New York, is casual and cool. Despite a shock of stylish grey hair, he looks enviably youthful for someone who, next week, will celebrate his 70th birthday. He’s in town for the opening of his latest show, a series of large-scale lightbox photographs alongside colorful, kinetic abstract paintings. In the photographs, we see Graham in various guises: gallerist, hunter, philosopher, tattooed tough. Each photograph is the result of countless hours spent sourcing props, building sets, and snapping hundreds—if not thousands—of digital images, which are then seamlessly assembled in post-production.
Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949 (2018) is, with its four panels, the biggest lightbox piece Graham has yet to make. It’s also a good entrypoint to examine how the artist operates, from conception through execution. He found inspiration in an archival photograph of Samuel Kootz, who, along with his wife, Jane, ran an influential midcentury gallery out of an apartment in Midtown. In that image, Kootz is pictured sitting in a chair. That wasn’t interesting enough for Graham, who decided to embody the gallerist tidying up the place before an opening. “He’s maybe slumming,” Graham mused. “He’s ironically vacuuming. ‘I’m the gallery owner—but I’m vacuuming!’” A pipe was added, for the sake of whimsy (“There’s something about having a pipe in your mouth; it looks like you’re smirking”), and the walls of the faux-gallery were hung with the sort of abstract paintings that would have looked envelope-pushing a few years after World War II.
This is only a single image, but even hearing about how it came to be can prove exhausting. Rather than renting generic midcentury-style canvases from a prop shop, Graham used the opportunity as an excuse to make the paintings himself, later commissioning individual frames suitable to the era. “They’re all generated from a single Rodchenko drawing from 1940 that’s cut up and put through the computer,” he explained, which evolved “the formal vocabulary out of this smaller original.” (The physical paintings exhibited at 303 came out of a further evolution of this same concept.)
The set for the photograph—a two-room, carpeted gallery space, with classy furniture and a boarded-up fireplace—was constructed from scratch in Graham’s roughly 3,000-square-foot Vancouver studio. Graham-as-Kootz is seen pushing around a Eureka model vacuum cleaner, which the artist chose for its wordplay—“it riffs on a ‘eureka moment’ when you’re looking at art.” It all adds up to an incredibly labor-intensive visual joke that is both elegant and silly.
Around the corner, we find some very different Rodney Grahams. In Remorseful Hunter (2019), closely based on an old painting that the artist bought from a thrift store, he’s perched on a rock in the middle of the forest, holding a rifle. A nearby squirrel gazes at him inquisitively. Graham—who often spins elaborate biographies for his characters—simply thinks of the hunter as “somebody who did not want to kill anymore.” The swirl of aesthetic inspirations here range from Norman Rockwell to Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and the films of Douglas Sirk. For the set, Graham turned to a professional he refers to as “Rock Bob,” a “film guy who knows how to make these perfect foam rocks.” Vancouver, the artist explained, has increasingly become a hotbed of film production, a development that allows him to tap into industry networks for his elaborate shoots.
Tattooed Man on Balcony (2018) is a fairly self-explanatory picture: man, balcony, tattoos. The balcony belongs to a style of house called the Vancouver Special, omnipresent in the city; the tattoos are specially-produced temporary ones, all based on characters from Popeye. (Graham doesn’t have any ink himself, but he told me that he once considered a permanent image of Popeye battling a squid.) The tattooed man is “a little bit of a fashion victim,” the artist surmised. “He’s into the rockabilly look—and he’s got time on his hands.” Post-production involved a bit of Photoshop magic. “I’m slimmed down on that one,” he admitted. “I tried to work out a bit at the gym, but I didn’t quite get there.” At first, Graham’s assistant went a little overboard with the slimming—“He made me really cut”—and they had to backtrack.
I asked how the artist gets himself into the mindset of each character—expecting, perhaps, a tale of mindful meditation or full-blown Daniel Day-Lewis theatrics. The real answer is more pedestrian. Each image involves less acting, he said, than simple posing. “It’s all just about micromovements,” he explained. “It’s very uncomfortable, actually. Trying to look relaxed, but: ‘Could you tilt your head a little that way, [make] your knuckle go like that?’” The potentials of digital photography, Graham added, mean that these minute adjustments—a glance, a look, the angle of a wrist—can all be retooled in the studio in real-time.
As he’s gotten older, Graham has had to constrain himself to age-appropriate characters. “There’s a certain degree of accepting what I look like, and the roles defined by that,” he said. “They’re more limited now. Eventually, I’m going to have to retire as an actor.” Until that point, though, we can look forward to at least a few more iterations of Rodney Graham—an artist who knows that sometimes, being yourself is highly overrated.
Correction: A previous version of this article suggested that Rodney Graham’s show at 303 Gallery opened on January 12th; it opened on January 11th and will close February 23rd. The text has been updated to reflect this change.