Rodney Graham’s Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour, 2012–2013: the paddler is the artist. Image: Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth and the artist’s estate

Artist whose intricate photographs and movies included physical humor and self-portraits

In a bohemian bar’s oak-paneled booth, a graying guy is somberly drinking a pint. A salon wall of cubist paintings, including pieces by Picasso, Paul Klee, and Marc Chagall, hangs over the velvet-cushioned seat on which he is hunched. The guy is Rodney Graham, an artist who passed away at the age of 73 after battling illness, or at the very least, Graham as one of the many personalities in his extensive collection of painstakingly crafted photographic portraits.

The cinematic picture replicated as a lightbox, Artist in Artist Bar, 1950s (2016), has all the characteristics of the Canadian artist’s work: it is rife with literary and creative allusions, full of humor, and done with an unusual lot of effort. Each piece in the bar scene took Graham six months to complete, during which time he meticulously honed its 20th-century aesthetic.

“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 produced a variety of art forms, including photography, sculpture, painting, and a set of “reading machines” in which he combined text with musical notation to create tales that would go on forever. With the nine-minute video Vexation Island, which was shown on loop during the 1997 Venice Biennale, he attained global recognition. The film begins with a lengthy overhead picture of a beautiful island that is bathed in tropical light and color. Graham eventually comes into view while unconscious and dressed as a pirate. On his forehead, there is a bleeding gash. He stirs, gets to his feet in confusion, looks around, and rattles a palm tree. The narrative is reset when a coconut slips free and lands on the pirate’s already-bloodied skull, causing him to fall into the position where the spectator initially saw him. Critics were eager to see allusions to Sigmund Freud and Gilles Deleuze, with their philosophical inquiries on desire and the unconscious, in addition to the homage to Robinson Crusoe, and they praised both the work’s sisyphean melancholia and its physical humor in the manner of Buster Keaton.

Graham at the Baltic Arts Centre, Gateshead, in 2011, in front of The Avid Reader, 1949. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“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.”

Rodney Graham was born in Abbotsford, British Columbia, to Richard Graham, a timber company buying agent, and Janet Graham, a school librarian. At the age of 19, he enrolled in the University of British Columbia’s program for an art history degree because he had “a vague idea of becoming a writer or an artist.” He continued his education at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and joined a band with Jeff Wall and his tutor Ian Wallace. UJ3RK5 (pronounced “you jerk”) released one EP and was chosen to open for Gang of Four when they visited Canada.

He was diverted from his budding music career by his first solo performance in 1979, which included a room-sized camera obscura outside his parents’ house that displayed an upside-down picture of a tree. However, he later went on to establish the amateur Rodney Graham Band and released five albums. Graham was inspired by the usage of the upturned tree as a theme in scientific texts that employ a succession of images to illustrate how optics works. It doesn’t take much study of contemporary physics to realize that the scientific viewpoint argues that the universe is not actually as it seems. The eye first perceives a tree upside down, just as it does on the glass back of the large format field camera I use, until the brain corrects it, the artist stated.

A series of “reading machines,” sculptures that included passages from books by Georg Büchner, Edgar Allan Poe, Freud, Ian Fleming, and other authors, were created by Graham in the decade that followed and into the early 1990s. To these passages, Graham either added additional scenes or rearranged them to create endless narrative loops. Graham subsequently said, “The earlier works were very conceptual.” “I became weary of constantly explaining them or giving the backstory,” the author said.

He had successful solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario (1987), the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (1989), and the first of many at the Lisson gallery in London (1993) and the 303 gallery in New York (1995). However, his requests for funding from the National Gallery of Canada, which is the proprietor and commissioner of the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, were consistently turned down. Eventually, out of irritation, he submitted an application with a concept for a collection of upside-down images of Canadian trees in an effort to rouse the curators’ nationalistic fervor. It was successful, but Graham was discouraged. Instead, much to the dismay of the National Gallery, he began work on Vexation Island, expanding on the absurdity inherent in his only other prior excursion into video, Halcion Sleep (1994), in which a drugged Graham is seen comatose in the trunk of a vehicle being transported to his house. They were furious, he remembered. But I’d thought of a far fucking better idea.

Dance!!!! 2008. Photograph: Courtesy the artist’s estate and Hauser & Wirth

After being pardoned, the artist had a solo exhibition at the National Gallery two years later. Vexation Island went on tour abroad the same year and was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami and the Whitechapel Gallery. More looped videoworks were featured in that London exhibition, including How I Became a Ramblin’ Man (1999), in which Graham performs a cowboy ballad while riding across the desert, and City Self/Country Self (2000), in which Graham portrays a 19th-century Parisian dandy who kicks another Graham-played peasant in the bottom. Graham also recreated his first camera obscura artwork in a replica 19th-century American post wagon at the Whitechapel, inviting viewers to gaze through to see a picture of an upside-down palm tree.

The lightbox works allowed for the development of more characters. Graham appeared in The Avid Reader, 1949 (2011), a self-portrait in which he reads the pasted newspapers used to cover the window of a shuttered shop while the artist’s then wife, Shannon Oksanen, strolls by. The self-portrait was created for the artist’s 2017 exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead, titled That’s Not Me. The artist continued to devour sources of information. In the same exhibition, he displayed Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour (2012–13), in which he imitated Thomas Eakins’ 1871 picture of a canoeist, and After Braque (2016), in which he imitated the accordion-playing style of French painter Georges Braque. Graham was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2016.

His mother Janet, sister Lindsay, brother Alan, and partner Jill Orsten are all still alive.

Artist William Rodney Graham was born on January 16, 1949, and he passed away on October 22, 2022.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.