Artist Rodney Graham returns to 303 Gallery this month, bringing with him a new series of works that blend together his ongoing investigations of the iconography of various social spheres with a body of works that simultaneously seem to blend his constructed worlds with the space of the viewer. The show, which opened this past week, includes both lightbox works and paintings, each informing a shared space that Graham allows to float in a certain degree of indeterminacy.
In a suite of new lightbox works, Graham continues to probe the semi-conscious creation of cultural archetypes. His meticulous set design and series of unique characters allows his images to float in and out of a sense of surreal portraiture, his characters relying on their assembled traits and surroundings to build a subtle narrative arc twisting around each included item. Figures like “Tattooed Man on Balcony” which springs from a poem Graham penned in the style of Mallarme, turns a description of a tattoo of Popeye battling a giant squid into a full scene, the character’s pompadour and spread-collar suggesting a specific brand of vernacular modernism. Graham again creates a strange kind of third-person self-portrait, as if this character is simultaneously himself, a model, and a type of standardized, unconscious prototype. The concept of the filmic “extra” is particularly resonant here.
Yet the show reaches a particularly striking climax with Vacuuming The Gallery 1949 (2018), Graham’s monumental piece taking its inspiration from a photograph of New York gallerist Samuel Kootz smoking a pipe in his own gallery during a Picasso exhibition in 1949. On the walls in this image are a series of Graham’s own abstract paintings, part of a series of variations based on a single watercolor by Alexander Rodchenko. Graham inhabits a role based on the image of Kootz, vacuuming the floors of his apartment-cum-gallery in a quaint gesture of domesticity. The artist’s face and mannerisms hint at uptown high culture, yet his position in a state of domestic maintenance constantly threatens to humorously disrupt this sense of seriousness. This is complicated by the paintings, which , as props, emphasize this same cultural milieu and enter into an extended negotiation with the rest of the image.
It’s noteworthy then, that Graham’s painterly constructions would ultimately spring forth from the photograph, adorning the walls around the image as a sort of visual counterpoint. The inclusion of these pieces in the show, moments of iconographic “authenticity” per se, also creates a multilayered experience in viewing the works, one where the construction of Graham’s worlds begins bleeding into the space beyond the frame.
The artist’s work is on view through February 23rd.
— D. Creahan
Rodney Graham at 303 [Exhibition Site]