Pathbreaking Photoconceptualist Rodney Graham, who frequently made himself the subject of his own work, died of cancer October 22 at the age of seventy-three. The news was collectively announced by the many galleries who represented him, spearheaded by Hauser & Wirth. A true polymath, Graham worked across media including painting, sculpture, film, video, and photography, culling influences from music, literature, psychoanalysis, and popular culture to create a multivalent body of work that examines social and historical cultures through humor and manipulations of perception. “We all know that moment of sweet, natural narcosis, where subconscious phantasm encroaches delightfully upon conscious reality,” wrote Jeff Gibson in Artforum in 2019. “It is in these oneiric interstices and the psychic fissures enabled by humor that the pleasure and power of Graham’s work resides. In every dream and joke, a truth.”
Rodney Graham was born in Abbotsford, British Columbia, on January 16, 1949. In 1971, he graduated from the University of British Columbia, where he studied under Ian Wallace and Jeff Wall, both members of the then-nascent Vancouver School. Graham became friends with both. The three eventually formed a postpunk band together, UJ3RK5, and for a time Graham’s work closely mirrored that of the slightly older Photoconceptualists. By the 1980s, however, he had moved from under their shadow and begun creating works that bore his unmistakable hallmark. These ranged from 1994’s Halcion Sleep, a single-shot “reverse kidnapping” film of the drugged artist dozing in the back seat of a car as he is driven from a suburban hotel to his city home; to “Welsh Oaks,” a haunting late-1990s series of photos showing the titular trees inverted; to the 2001 Photokinetoscope, in which Graham re-created Albert Hofmann’s bicycle ride around Berlin’s Tiergarten after taking the world’s first intentional LSD trip.
Graham earned widespread acclaim for his contribution to the Forty-Seventh Venice Biennale, Vexation Island, 1997. The short film stars the artist as a man reclining under a coconut tree who arises to shake the fibrous drupe onto his head, knocking himself unconscious, and then, in a loop that is repeated ad infinitum, rising again to deliver to himself the same obliviating experience. Like many of his works, the film showed Graham relying on outdated technology—in this case Technicolor—to create a highly contemporary work that confounds easy interpretation. “The parallel between the hermeneutics that we extract from the image and our actual way of reading the image may be ironic,” wrote Barry Schwabsky in Artforum in 2011. “Is Graham inviting us to become absorbed in his art, like the avid reader in it, or warning us not to? Paradoxically, we have to invent his intention ourselves.”
Notable works of the twenty-first century included 2005’s Torqued Chandelier Release, a clattering 35 mm projector beaming footage of a wildly spinning chandelier (controversially realized as a public, physical work in Vancouver in 2019) and 2018’s Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, a work spanning four light boxes and showing Graham sweeping the carpet of a gallery on whose walls hang paintings by the artist himself. Painting became a focus for Graham in the last years of his life, and the paintings depicted in Vacuuming the Gallery were frequently displayed alongside it.
Graham was awarded the Kurt Schwitters Prize in 2003, the Gershon Iskowitz Prize in 2004, and the DAAD Scholarship in 2001. In 2011, he received the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts, one of Canada’s most prestigious awards, and in 2016, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for his contributions to his home country’s contemporary art scene. His work is held in the collections of major museums around the world, including the Vancouver Art Gallery; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate, London; MACBA, Barcelona; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.