A greying man sits glumly in the oak-lined booth of a bohemian bar nursing a pint. Above the velvet-cushioned bench on which he hunches is a salon hang of cubist paintings – works in the style of Picasso, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall. The man is the artist Rodney Graham, who has died aged 73 after suffering from cancer, or at least Graham playing one of the many characters featured in his long-running series of meticulously constructed photographic portraits.
Artist in Artist Bar, 1950s (2016), the cinematic photograph reproduced as a lightbox, has all the hallmarks of the Canadian’s work: steeped in artistic and literary references, rich in humour, and produced with an extraordinary amount of effort. Graham spent six months painting each of the works in the pub scene, carefully honing their 20th-century style.
“When I’m creating a lightbox, with a character it’s not really a method approach, it’s not part of a rich fantasy life of mine,” he said. “I want to do just enough to make the character plausible, but I don’t create an elaborate backstory.”
Graham’s works ranged from photography to sculpture, painting and a series of “reading machines” in which he manipulated texts and musical scores to produce endless, looping narratives. He reached international fame with Vexation Island, a nine-minute film screened on a loop at the 1997 Venice Biennale. It opens with a long aerial shot, saturated with tropical sun and colour, of an idyllic island. Eventually the camera lands on Graham, unconscious and in the guise of a pirate. He has a bloody gash on his forehead. He stirs, stands up bewildered, turns round and shakes a palm tree. A coconut loosens and falls on his already bloodied head, and the pirate collapses into the position the viewer first encountered him, resetting the narrative. As well as the nod to Robinson Crusoe, critics were quick to unearth references to Sigmund Freud and Gilles Deleuze, with their philosophical questions on desire and the unconscious, and to praise both the sisyphean melancholia of the work and its Buster Keaton-style physical comedy.
“It was a make-or-break moment for me,” he told the Guardian in 2017. “I sank $50,000 into it and, through a contact I had in Hollywood, managed to get all these movie technicians to fly down to the Virgin Islands and work for free. I just went for it – and went deeply into debt for it – but it changed my work dramatically.”
Born in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Rodney was the son of Janet (nee Golos), a school librarian, and Richard Graham, a purchasing agent for a lumber company. He harboured “a vague idea of becoming a writer or an artist” and, at the age of 19, embarked on an art history degree at the University of British Columbia. He went on to study at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and started playing in a band with his teacher, Ian Wallace, and fellow artist Jeff Wall. UJ3RK5 (pronounced “you jerk”) produced one EP and won a support slot with Gang of Four when the post-punk band came to Canada.
His first solo show in 1979 distracted him from this burgeoning music career (though he went on to form the hobbyist Rodney Graham Band in the 2000s, releasing five albums), and featured a room-sized camera obscura built outside his parents’ home in which the viewer was shown the image of a tree flipped upside down. The upturned tree continued as a motif, Graham inspired by its use in scientific textbooks explaining how optics works, with a series of photographs. “You don’t have to delve very deeply into modern physics to realise that the scientific view holds that the world is really not as it appears. Before the brain rights it, the eye sees a tree upside down in the same way it appears on the glass back of the large format field camera I use,” the artist explained.
The following decade and into the early 90s his work was similarly complex, as he created a series of “reading machines”, sculptures involving excerpts from books by Georg Büchner, Edgar Allan Poe, Freud, Ian Fleming and several others, to which Graham either added extra scenes or rearranged to create endless narrative loops. “The earlier works were very conceptual,” Graham would later comment. “I got tired of having to tell the backstory, or explain them all the time.”
He enjoyed solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario (1987), the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (1989) and the first of several at Lisson gallery in London (1993) and 303 gallery in New York (1995), but his pitches to the the National Gallery of Canada, the owner and commissioner of the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, were consistently refused. In frustration he finally applied with a proposal for a series of inverted photographs of Canadian trees, hoping to pique the curators’ patriotic sentiment. It worked, but left Graham despondent. Instead, building on the absurdity present in his only other previous foray into video, Halcion Sleep (1994), in which a drugged Graham is shown unconscious in the boot of a car being driven to his home, and much to the consternation of the National Gallery, he started work on Vexation Island. “They were mad,” he recalled. “But I’d come up with a way better fucking idea.”
Two years later, forgiven, the artist had a solo show at the National Gallery, and Vexation Island toured internationally, shown that year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami, and at the Whitechapel gallery in 2002. That London show included further looped videoworks, such as How I Became a Ramblin’ Man (1999), which features Graham riding across the desert singing a cowboy ballad, and City Self/Country Self (2000), in which the artist appears as a 19th-century Parisian dandy, who proceeds to kick a peasant, also played by Graham, on the bottom. At the Whitechapel Graham also remade a version of his first camera obscura sculpture, this time set in a replica of a 19th-century American post wagon, with the viewer invited to peer through to the image of an inverted palm tree.
Other characters were developed through the lightbox works. For his 2017 exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead, titled That’s Not Me, Graham starred as the The Avid Reader, 1949 (2011), a self-portrait in which in period attire he reads the pasted newspapers used to cover the window of a shuttered shop (the artist’s then wife, Shannon Oksanen, elegantly dressed, strolls by). The artist remained voracious in his use of reference material. At the same exhibition he showed Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour (2012–13), in which he recreated an 1871 painting of a canoeist by Thomas Eakins, and After Braque (2016), in which he mimicked the French painter Georges Braque, playing the accordion. In 2016, Graham was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada.
He is survived by his mother, Janet; sister Lindsay; brother Alan; and partner, Jill Orsten.