Monday, April 05, 2004

Rodney Graham at the AGO - National Post Mar 30/04

Artist Rodney Graham is seen dressed as a 17th-century dandy wearing a top hat, striped trousers and a riding coat. He strolls elegantly down a cobblestone lane, somewhere in France. In the next scene, he's dressed like a country yokel wearing baggy pants and a tattered old smock. A few minutes later the two selves cross paths and, in an unexpected Buster Keaton moment of collision, the city squire lifts his pointy shoe and delivers to his country double the swiftest kick up the backside ever recorded on film.

So goes City Self/Country Self, one of the Vancouver-based artist's famous, seamlessly looped films. It is prominently featured in his newly opened retrospective, A Little Thought, now on at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

City Self/Country Self is among the funniest of Graham's very odd and very high-quality sight-gag films. Like many of them, the theme runs along the Freudian vein of classic ego and id conflict. But there is a sly mysteriousness and self-effacing humour that is gorgeous to watch but weirdly impenetrable to fully comprehend.

Graham is best known as a visual artist but he also has a cult-like following for his music. He was frontman of the 1980s post-punk band UJ3RK5 (pronounced "you jerk"), and his new band, called simply Rodney Graham, sold out to an adoring crowd Tuesday night at the Gladstone.

It's actually not surprising that he has split his career between music and art, considering that the double theme is everywhere in everything he does. Often he lets them fuse into one. But in his films and photographs he also borrows heavily from so many historic references that it is mind-bloggling to try and absorb the amount of information he actually sources. He taps into Freud, the Brothers Grimm and the physical comedy of Keaton and Chaplin, as well as Ian Fleming, Pink Floyd, and Kurt Cobain. And those are just some of the familiar names.

With so many references it's very hard to figure out how A Little Thought leads to one larger thought because Graham prefers to open possibilities for interpretation as opposed to channel a collective moment for clarity. Thwarting understanding is part of his gag.

Take his famed black-and-white photographs of upside-down trees. I have read many interpretations of these inverted trees. Graham has said they are a homage to camera obscura and the 19th-century style of photographing trees. Another writer wrote they "assimilate the fictional gaze." Still another thought they "represent the anxiety of clear cutting."
They are to me, the best link to understanding his work as a whole. The camera sees things upside down, it's our eyes and brain that revert the image. So it is with almost all of Graham's art. Everything looks familiar but it is not conclusive. Once that makes some sense you can get into his puzzling body of images without tearing your hair out for lack of substance.

It so happened that on the day of the press preview I was not in the mood for Graham's diffusive and brainy wanderings. The show overall seemed gratingly arrogant and suspiciously padded with glass cases full of trivial things, like personal letters written by the artist, sketches, and a display of past exhibition invites. But more importantly, the work appeared exclusive to the very few who have the time to decipher all the innuendoes and in-jokes that appeared to fly around the entire exhibition.

For instance, without reading anything about his art beforehand, what can anyone make of a grainy 26-minute video of Graham in pyjamas sleeping in the back seat of a moving car? Called Halcion Sleep, we are told the artist is in a drugged state of pleasant dreaming and this image stems back to his childhood memories of feeling safe in that spot when his parents drove him home at night. Nice, but this single-take video begs the indifferent question: so what? As one collegue said to me while we watched, Graham goes too far in and forgets to break out of his own internal, circular thinking. He leaves us out. She was right.

But it wasn't just Graham's cryptic art that put a dark smudge on my first viewing of the exhibition during the preview. It was the mandatory opening speeches that made things feel stiff and formal. There were just too many other reporters walking by on their cell phones and smiling PR staff handing out press kits. The distractions didn't allow for what Graham's work very quietly insists that we do. And that is to relax, chill, zone out, and not demand too much from what we see before us. At least, don't demand there be definitive meaning immediately, even though most of his works appear to be telling stories.

Graham's art is best appreciated on an illusive, nonlinear plane where it is quite alright to not always get it, or to only get it sort of. But you have to let yourself not get it. Amidst the hustle of the city, that's hard.

I recommend, as a visual sedative to get into the sauntering and romantic moods Graham is inclined to present, two of his films that need very little explanation. The first is Edge of a Wood, a double-screen film of a lush forest shot at night and dramatically spotlighted by a hovering helicopter. The soundtrack is the sound of the trees swaying and the chopper blades fading in and out. It's a visually powerful pairing of nature and machine that takes over all of the senses.

The other is a more recent film loop called How I Became A Ramblin' Man where we see Graham on horseback coming and going through a tumbleweed countryside, guitar strapped to his back. He stops to strum a few chords and sing, "... ever like a little cloud on high/I'll be a drifter 'til the day that I die." There is no better cliche for solitude and dreaming than this.

I wonder if visitors will be convinced of Graham's visual missives and be willing to forego understanding them. My guess is it'll be a 50-50 split. Fifty percent will absolutely adore his remarkable uniqueness, his poetic banality and how much thinking-time he has spent giving form to his oddly nostalgic projects. They'll love, too, that his "little thoughts" have culminated into films with impressive big-budget production values. And they'll let his stellar international reputation have a slow burn, like a warm shot of Irish scotch. The other half won't stop long enough to smell the roses. - Catherine Osborne

Rodney Graham's A Little Thought, Art Gallery of Ontario. March 3 to June 27, 2004