In the biography of Rodney Graham (1949, Abbotsford, Canada) published in the exhibition catalogue, Grant Arnold recounts how on one of his many childhood strolls through the forests on the outskirts of Vancouver, Graham fainted while swinging near a ravine. Only the chance intervention of a tree trunk floating in the stream allowed young Graham to walk away from the accident unscathed. Years later, in 1976, Rodney Graham began his professional artistic career with a work that was strongly influenced by forests: 75 Polaroids, a series of snapshots taken at night in the Canadian woods. In 1994, the artist took advantage of a trip to Barcelona for an exhibition organised by Fundació Espai Poblenou to make a nocturnal trip to the mountains of Montserrat, which resulted in a new forest series of eighty polaroids: Montserrat.
The title of the exhibition Rodney Graham. Through the Forest is also a reference to one of the key phrases of the English translation of the novel by German playwright Georg Büchner, Lenz (1835), which deals with the romantic theme of being lost in the forest. Graham appropriated this text in his homonymous work, Lenz (1983).
The exhibition presented the forest as a leitmotiv, a place and a metaphor for the work of Rodney Graham, which is rooted in the conceptual art of the eighties and which playfully and theatrically explores the history of the art of our time through a complex collection of literary appropriations, films, photographs and paintings.
Canadian artist Rodney Graham's exhibition entitled Through the Forest provides insight into the development of his complex body of work. The roots of Graham's work, which is influenced by 1970s Conceptual art and its way of thinking, lie in the adaptation of literary models. Born in 1949 in Abbotsford, a small town in British Columbia, Canada, Graham and his family moved to Vancouver in 1964. From 1968 to 1971, he studied art history and anthropology, as well as English and French literature, at the University of British Columbia.
Graham made his first large photographic work, 75 Polaroids, in 1976. This series of snapshots taken during a night-time walk through the forests around Vancouver was exhibited at Pender Gallery in Vancouver; it was Graham's first solo exhibition and marked the beginning of his career as an artist. 75 Polaroids contains elements that would be essential to his later works, namely his fascination with photographic processes, which transform objects from mere representations to autonomous images, and the idea of illuminating places at night via flash. Following this work, Graham experimented with a camera obscura he made himself and used to photograph archaeological sites during his stay at the American Academy in Rome. This line of work culminated in the series Rome Ruins (1978). In 1994, Graham produced a series of Polaroid shots while visiting Montserrat, near Barcelona; at the time, his work was being exhibited at the Fundació Espai Poblenou, in an exhibition to which he later added the new Montserrat snapshots. In 1984, the groundbreaking exterior installation entitled Two Generators was exhibited in Vancouver. Graham used a generator to produce electrical light, which he then used to illuminate a river near the university campus. A related work, Edge of a Wood (1999), shows a place that is revealed by suddenly illuminating the dark of the night. The effect of the Polaroid technique –a brief flash, exposure and slow development of the picture– is transferred to an action of illuminating a site that is documented in the film.
In 1986, Rodney Graham came across an English translation of the story Lenz by the German Romantic author Georg Büchner. In that translation, Graham discovered a peculiarity of the layout: the words ‘Through the forest' appear twice at points where the story continues from one page to another. Graham's interest was piqued and he realised the inherent possibilities of repetition. For him, the text became a loop, as the term is used in film terminology, and a key element to later works. Graham constructed a reading machine that he employed to make this experience both vivid and visible. The first five pages on which he recognised this phenomenon in the layout of the text are arranged so that the rotational effect becomes tangible. The device created appears like a machine for seeing. Later, Graham made other constructions, like those for Parsifal (1990–2009), which bring to the viewer's attention the infinite nature of a musical phrase that had been inserted into that opera. He also made objects that present books he found in antique shops.
From there, it was only a small step to designing bookcases that resembled works of Minimalist art, mostly those by Donald Judd. An early example of this type of work is the bookcase-like object intended for the collected works of Sigmund Freud, on which Graham worked for years. A significant part of this exhibition is devoted to his early works and the development of his oeuvre; to this end, the MACBA is showing the archive of Rodney Graham's former Belgian publisher, Yves Gevaert, for the first time, allowing viewers to make connections between his work and the material in this archive. An assortment of other materials has also been included in the exhibition, and it contributes to the understanding of how Graham's ideas developed. The Judd-like objects for books are derived from book bindings and covers Graham himself designed. Sculptures are created based on the book as object, while concepts are created from their content.
In 1997, Rodney Graham was invited to represent Canada at the International Venice Biennale. For this occasion, Graham made an influential film based on Hollywood movies and the story of Robinson Crusoe stranded on an isolated island. Graham plays one of the main characters and the film, Vexation Island, made him instantly famous in the art world. The exhibition at the MACBA focuses on the films he made later, which, on a formal level, further the tradition of conceptual- text works and light phenomena in terms of themes and motifs. For the film Coruscating Cinnamon Granules (1996), Graham strewed ground cinnamon onto a burner of the stove in his kitchen and filmed the glowing specks; the theatre space in which this film is shown has the same dimensions as the kitchen where it was made. Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003) is an installation of a surrealistic image. Graham acquired an almost unused 1930s typewriter from a second-hand shop in Vancouver. First, he documented the object photographically, in the style of New Objectivity; he then covered it with flour to create a poignant image for words falling silent. Torqued Chandelier Release (2005) is related to the light phenomena explored in the cinnamon film. This second part of the exhibition deals with images that employ light effects, thus relating to photography in another way.
The third part of the exhibition deals with the role of the artist. In the film Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong, 1969 (2006), Graham re-enacts a scene from the history of rock music in which a musician throws potatoes at a gong in a sort of performance. In Graham's piece, vodka takes the place of the potatoes; a bottle of vodka is part of the installation. Rodney Graham is interested in these kinds of ‘processes of translation'. Something that originated in literature becomes physical as it is rendered in another medium. My Only Novel Translated from the French (After William Beckford, Mark Twain) (2000), in which the French translation of an English text is translated back into English, is a direct example of this. The theme of the role of the artist is also explored in the monumental triptych The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 (2007). In this installation, Graham is a sleepwalking amateur painter who attempts to reproduce a large-format abstract painting that had obviously interested him when he was studying art. The scene in the light-box piece makes it look like a film still. Graham plays on the art historical discourse of Modernity in which diverse directions are represented. In 3 Musicians (Members of the Early Music Group ‘Renaissance Fare' Performing Matteo of Perugia's ‘Le Greygnour Bien' at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Late September, 1977) from 2006, and even more in the most recent work in this exhibition, entitled Artist's Model Posing for ‘The Old Bugler, Among the Fallen, Beaune-la-Rolande 1870' in the Studio of An Unknown Military Painter, Paris, 1885 (2009), Graham continues to re-enact historical paintings. Finally we present Rodney Graham as a painter who, unlike in The Gifted Amateur, turns to the painting of the so-called École de Paris to produce abstractions in the style of that period.
The exhibition Through the Forest displays a long path that goes from the adaptation of literary models and the appropriation of moments in art history to impressive film works, and finally culminates in a classical art medium, painting. In tandem with the exhibition at the MACBA, where the series of paintings Picasso, My Master (2005) is also on view, a series of reliefs by Graham will be exhibited at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona. Entitled Possible Abstractions, this series constitutes a caricature of the polemically ironic attacks on the development of modern abstract painting, and claims to be a new form of that brand of art.
Curator: Friedrich Meschede. This exhibition has been organised by the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and coproduced with the Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, and the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg.
Related to this exhibition in Barcelona, the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona coorganise the presentation of Possible Abstractions, a project by Rodney Graham on view at the Museu Picasso.