Exhibition Guide: ‘Rodney Graham. Getting it Together in the Country’

This resource has been produced to accompany the exhibition ‘Rodney Graham. Getting it Together in the Country’ at Hauser & Wirth Somerset from 28 January – 8 May 2023. In dialogue with the rural gallery setting, the exhibition focuses on Rodney Graham’s major late body of work, The Four Seasons, created between 2011 and 2013.

The Four Seasons 2011 – 2013

Graham produced this series of four lightboxes in his Vancouver studio and in public leisure facilities throughout the city. The landmark lightbox series evolved organically over two years, and is dedicated to nature’s cycle through meticulously staged mise-en-scènes, reflecting a moment of pause and desire to step out of the daily grind.

Each image is a fictional self-portrait, with the artist in costume but always recognizable, portraying a vast array of characters. A true polymath, Graham seamlessly inhabited these different personae, often informed by historical, literary, musical, philosophical and references from popular culture. From the props and their placement within the frame, to the elaborate costumes and stage sets, each scene is purposefully constructed and executed with an exceptional degree of technical expertize and humor.

This guide provides supplementary information about several key works featured in the exhibition, including quotations from Graham, that give a unique insight into each image composition.

Rodney Graham, Betula Pendula Fastigiata (Sous-Chef on Smoke Break), 2011 © Rodney Graham

‘Betula Pendula Fastigiata (Sous-Chef on Smoke Break)’ 2011

The first of The Four Seasons works to be photographed by Graham was ‘Betula Pendula Fastigiata (Sous Chef on Smoke Break)’ in 2011. The subject was inspired by a scene the artist witnessed behind a restaurant in Vancouver, Canada.

‘This piece was inspired by a common sight in Vancouver — kitchen workers on a smoke break. I saw one such worker having a smoke behind a Main Street restaurant, leaning against a hedge and the relationship between the smoker and nature interested me. I decided to reconstruct the scene as a kind of reverie in a considerably more bucolic setting: a public garden, Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver, an arboretum, and a popular tourist destination which has a typical park view restaurant,’ says Graham.

‘As usual, I used myself as the subject, in this case a sous chef, an employee of the restaurant, ‘Seasons in the Park.’ Having found the location, I realized the true subject of the picture was the magnificent birch tree against which I was posed. I titled the picture accordingly, using the full Latin designation from the plaque visible on the tree, indicating the human presence by a subtitle. I liked the idea that just as a sous chef is under a chef, so the human subject is subordinate to the tree. It is the second work in which I have placed myself under a tree, the first being the 1997 film Vexation Island.’

Rodney Graham, Smoke Break 2 (Drywaller), 2012 © Rodney Graham

‘Smoke Break 2 (Drywaller)’ 2012

Another smoke break that Graham witnessed in Vancouver inspired him to make the second work in the series, ‘Smoke Break 2 (Drywaller),’ completed in 2012.

‘The Smoke Break series was inspired by observed events. Here, I witnessed a plasterer having a cigarette break on Main Street, Vancouver while standing on the strange metals stilts these tradespeople often wear to reach high walls,’ says Graham. ‘In my picture, I was curious to explore the painterly aspects of the plastering of drywall as I have always appreciated the quality of patterns of white plaster on the cool grey drywall panels. The heating unit in the right panel is used to speed up the drying process. Here, it suggests a kind of warming campfire as the white pattern on the grey wall behind me suggests snow in a wintry grey sky.

‘I showed both images to my friend, the artist David Batchelor, who suggested the idea of continuing the series as The Four Seasons, since I already had summer (the background of ‘Betula Pendula Fastigiata (Sous Chef on Smoke Break)’ clearly suggests summer) and winter (the snow effect of the powdered plaster, the snowflake pattern on the wall and the space heater in ‘Smoke Break 2 (Drywaller).’ Thus, the idea of the series was born. So then I started thinking about what I would do for the remaining two seasons.’

Rodney Graham, Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour, 2012 – 2013 © Rodney Graham

‘Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour’ 2012 – 2013

With summer and winter completed, Graham started to work on the lightbox that was to represent autumn, ‘Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour,’ between 2012 and 2013.

‘This large three-panel light box is based on a painting known as ‘Max Schmitt in a Single Scull’ by the great American realist Thomas Eakins. The original painting, which depicts Schmidt (a championship racer and friend of Eakins) resting after a race on the Schuylkil River near Eakins’s home in Philadelphia, is one of the first works he exhibited after returning to America from Paris, where he was studying with Gerome. I have always admired this work and long wanted to adapt it to a photograph within a contemporary setting,’ says Graham. ‘I found a local equivalent of the bridge, which figures in the back of the Eakins painting, a railway bridge across the mouth of the Seymour River in North Vancouver. I decided to shoot the piece using myself as a model (as I always do) playing Schmidt as a contemporary kayaker on a break. This is the only ‘break’ in the series in which I am not smoking.

Rodney Graham, Actor / Director, 1954, 2013 © Rodney Graham. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography

‘Actor / Director, 1954’ 2013

Graham completed work on the last lightbox in 2013. ‘Actor/Director, 1954,’ which represents spring, is the only work set within a historical setting.

‘In my work, I wanted to continue my tradition of self-portraiture and set it in a double past. The scene is a Hollywood soundstage in the 1950s during the production of a Technicolor film set in an 18th Century French chateau. The blossoms on the fake cherry trees clearly indicate springtime. My character is alone on the set, in costume, standing behind the camera, cigarette in hand. I am pausing from my work as an actor to set up an insert shot of my own hat on a park bench,’ says Graham.

‘The camera is an old three-reel Technicolor, discontinued in 1954, the year in which the picture is set. It is trained on a tricorne hat on a bench that matches my costume. The card on the camera identifies the shot as ‘Beaucaire hat insert.’ Thus, this could be a production of the film, ‘Monsieur Beaucaire.’ Two films have been adapted from the Booth Tarkington novel of the same name, the first a 1924 silent drama with Rudolph Valentino, the second, a comedy from 1946, in which Bob Hope plays Louis XIV’s hapless barber. I have never seen the first one, but the second is one of my favourite films.’

Rodney Graham, 3 Musicians (Members of the Early Music Group “Renaissance Fare” performing Matteo da Perugia’s ‘le Greygnour Bien’, Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Late September, 1977), 2006 © Rodney Graham. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography

‘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)’ 2006

The lightbox ‘3 Musicians,’ completed in 2006, stages a musical performance set in 1977 of ‘le Greygnour Bien’, composed by Matteo da Perugia. The 15th Century composition referred to in the artwork’s title was rediscovered in the 1970s to great public acclaim.

‘The recording, by the Early Music Consort of London and David Munrow, was made in the mid 1970s, and the album sleeve had images of the musicians. This led me to thoughts of historical reconstruction, in general — the way movies representing an earlier period invariably betray the stylistic bias of the time. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to look back on an earlier era; that is, to represent musicians of the 1970s (the golden era of the early music revival, I think) approaching an artefact of the 15th Century,’ says Graham.

‘This musical artefact, in turn, exhibits in its strange atonality, a curious pre-echo of 20th Century experimental music. It was the nature of the musical composition itself that led me to the triptych form. The work is scored for three instruments (vielle, tenor recorder and lute) and the relation between the voices is such that each musician seems to be in his or her own ‘space’ for much of its duration. I wanted to represent each individual musician, but have it work in a coherent renaissance perspective, so it was shot from a single point of view, with the negative divided into three pictures later,’ says Graham.

The photograph’s setting is a modernist church in Vancouver, where a musical ensemble, specializing in late medieval music, are performing the piece. The Unitarian Church is a liberal institution in which lectures on secular subjects and musical performances shared time with the liturgical program. According to Graham, ‘they would have hosted musical events like the one, I am sure. Actually, ‘le Greygnour Bien’ was a secular work meant for performance in a courtly audience in its original historical context.’ In Graham’s composition, ‘the costumes worn by the musicians attempt to replicate the sort of rudimentary homemade outfits favored by some family consorts of the 1970s. Today, the approach is much more sophisticated. I liked the idea of the musicians immersing themselves in a fantasy, in association with the period of their musical interest.’

Rodney Graham, Pipe Cleaner Artist, Amalfi, ’61, 2013 © Rodney Graham

‘Pipe Cleaner Artist, Amalfi, ’61’  2013

Completed in 2013, this large-scale, lightbox-mounted photographic work shows a fictional modern artist working on fantastical constructions made of pipe cleaners in his Mediterranean studio. Influenced by Man Ray, Jean Cocteau and Asger Jorn, ‘Pipe Cleaner Artist, ’61’ references a forgotten era. Graham wanted to ‘invoke an image of a studio utopia in a period where modernism still seemed to hold possibilities.’

According to Graham, ‘the inspiration for this work was a 1930s Man Ray photograph of Jean Cocteau working on a hanging pipe cleaner construction, as well as a photograph of Asger Jorn in his studio in Albissola, in 1961. These two very different images — the one posed, with dramatic artificial chiaroscuro, the other a snapshot of a rustic sunlit Mediterranean atelier — of two very different artists, provided the basis for a hypothetical modernist artist working in Italy in the early 1960s. This is the third work I have made about an imaginary artist’s studio. The first, ‘The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962’ (2007) concerns an amateur artist who, inspired by the work of Morris Louis, is galvanized into action painting. The second, set in the late 19th Century, focuses on an artist’s model in the studio of a Parisian painter.’

The artist’s quotations feature in ‘Rodney Graham — Lightboxes’ (2017) which is available to purchase from the Hauser & Wirth Somerset shop.