Originally published on The Upcoming on 19th May 2013
Rodney Graham’s latest exhibition at Lisson Gallery is a series of breathtaking transparencies overlaid on light-boxes, creating encapsulating larger than life scenes, fastidiously detailed and theatrically staged. These striking tableaux have a three-dimensional quality with impossibly saturated colours that capture strange moments in time. There is not a hint of realism about these images and each references a scene from existing literature, cinema or art history.
Cactus Fan depicts a scientist pondering a strange object, perhaps a gift: a cactus plant with four vibrantly coloured helium balloons attached to it. There’s something comically absurd about the composition. The Avid Reader 1949 is an expansive piece made up of three huge adjoining light boxes. It paints a re-imagined scene of an acquaintance of the artist stopping to read the newspapers plastered on the inside of the windows of a closed shop. Graham conflates fact with fiction by bringing to life a character that compulsively stops and reads everything he sees.
Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour takes the same triptych format as The Avid Reader but is inspired by a painting from 1871 by the American realist Thomas Eakins. Graham gives this scene a very modern twist, juxtaposing the idyllic river with a scene of urban decay in the background. Smoke Break 2 (Drywaller) sees the bizarre depiction of a workman having a cigarette break whilst on stilts. Graham teases the exciting and dramatic out of the mundane masterfully throughout the exhibition.
These epic light-box pieces are beautifully cinematic and immersive, beckoning the audience to take a step into these imagined worlds. They are like illustrations or comic book scenes, each with a subtle reference. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of their favourite film, book or painting? Graham clearly does, painting himself as the protagonist in many of these pieces. There is nothing impossible or fantastical about these scenes and yet they are still clearly fictional fantasies.
The Pipe Cleaner Artist Amalfi 1961 takes this to new heights, referencing a Man Ray photograph from the 30s. This time the artist becomes self-referential, with his own works shown in the background and thus breaks down the barriers between the real and imagined, between the artist and the work.