In 1940, Clement Greenberg declared that “the history of avant-garde painting is that of a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium,” and the controversial concept of media specificity/purity was born. About thousand years earlier, the painted triptych emerged in early European Christian art decorating the first churches and early sites of worship, turning a form that had first been used in ancient Rome as mere hinged writing tablets into a genre creating replete narrative worlds about saints. And this fall at Donald Young Gallery, Rodney Graham presents four new light box photographs in two locations that harkens to both moments while taking up current challenges of photography in ways that are more subtle than they first appear.
Medium specificity has gone the way of so many modernist ideas, but there’s still value in thinking about how art takes up the characteristics of its raw medium, particularly in forms where there have been sea changes in how a particular medium is used. The large scale tableau photographs of our time, particularly when presented in the form of c-prints on light boxes, are always in some sense “about” detail and the hyper-real simply because that is what they tend to create most strikingly in contrast to other art forms. New technologies have allowed for the kind of size, scale, and particularity of photographs that can create intricate, exhaustive worlds for the viewer to enter. The counterpoint to the installation, if there is another privileged contemporary form of visual art, it’s the monumental photograph of the last twenty years.
Graham’s photographs are as painterly as those of the other so-called Vancouver School photo-conceptualists, but they’re also slightly more off-putting. Starring himself as various characters, a nod to the inherent narcissism and tradition of conceptual photographers appearing in disguise in their photographs, the images seem at first more idiosyncratic, even indulgent. The two nearly life-size photographs from 2011, Small Basement Camera Shop circa 1937 and Betula Pendula 'Fastigiata' (Sous-Chef on Smoke Break), in Donald Young’s new space on Michigan Avenue feature the artist as a sous-chef smoking a cigarette in an almost overly-lush forest scene; and the second, used in the advertising materials for the show, the artist as a small-town Kodak film developer, complete with a bow-tie.
Rodney Graham. Small Basement Camera Shop circa 1937, 2011. Painted aluminum lightbox with transmounted chromogenic
transparency. 71 1/2 h. x 71 1/2 x 7 inches (181.9 x 181.9 x 17.8 cm). Edition of ﬁve and one Artistʼs Proof 1105-230. Courtesy the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.
The photographs are visually engaging, theatrical, and absorbing in their uncanniness. As usual, Graham is slightly poking fun at himself, the photographer as sous-chef in the art world, and these two pieces are along the same lines as the popular-culture character work he’s been making since the ‘90s in film and video as well. But the camera shop photograph gives more of a clue about what seems to be a new turn Graham’s larger photographic project: the exploration of media evolution itself. Small Basement Camera Shop is obviously about new and old photography, and the juxtaposition of new and old media is both literal, seemingly old black and white photographs in frames decorate the walls and shelves, Graham-as-attendant makes notes using a fountain pen, and allegorical, a shadow from a windowpane in an unseen back room, and a line of cameras on the counter pointing outside the frame of the photograph. These last all gesture at what the new tableau photographs can do that the “old photography” couldn’t: create entire immanent worlds, multiple rooms, digitally-altered details that erase the problem of depth perception and limited area.
Which gets to the two more engaging photographs, at the old Donald Young Gallery space in the West Loop: two large-scale triptych photographs that take up this worlding and make direct interventions with the triptych and the role of art photography itself. The Avid Reader 1949 and Leaping Hermit are formally similar, containing three large aluminum light box panels. The Avid Reader 1949 is deeply textual, with the windows of a former Woolworth’s covered with newspaper and women walking left-to-right, like the eye of a reader. The tension here, between the reading of a text and the immediate grasp of looking at a photograph, makes the experience of looking riveting -- and this is where the playful brilliance of what Graham is up to becomes evident here. These photographs, immanent worlds, are as much in the world of medieval iconography as they are in new media, and the form of the triptych turns out to create a dovetailing with the evolution of photography in a way that feels elemental and pure in Greenberg’s sense of the word.
Rodney Graham. The Avid Reader 1949, 2011. Three painted aluminum lightboxes with transmounted chromogenic transparencies. Each panel: 119 1/2 h x 71 1/2 inches (303.8 x 181.9 cm). Overall: 119 1/2 h. x 218 3/4 inches (303.8 x 555.7 cm). Edition of four and one Artistʼs Proof. 1105-230. Courtesy the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago.
Where the middle panel of medieval triptychs was usually the largest and featured Christ or saints in the middle, with the flanking side panels depicting observers, minor characters, and landscape, Graham has cleverly inserted himself as the central figure -- pointing to the fetish of the artist, his own tongue-in-cheek satire of himself, a gray-haired man in silly costumes. In both these triptychs material detritus of old media landscapes -- whether newspaper or a pile of furniture, remains of a house -- are part of the landscape, and the narrative he creates has material objects standing in for the human form on the left panel, the artist himself in the middle, and women on the right either walking away or looking in at him. But most of all, this immediate gestalt presence of the entire detailed scene Graham creates takes up both a rhetoric of new media’s instantaneousness and medieval art’s transubstantiation, suggesting that the altars where we worship now and the way we engage with the new images are as antiquated, as loaded, and as deeply inevitable they are cutting-edge.
-Monica Westin, ArtSlant Staff Writer
(top image: Rodney Graham. Betula Pendula 'Fastigiata' (Sous-Chef on Smoke Break), 2011. Painted aluminum lightbox with transmounted chromogenic transparency. 95 1/2 h. x 71 1/2 x 7 inches (242.6 x 181.6 x 17.8 cm). Edition of ﬁve and one Artistʼs Proof. 1110-060. Courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery.)