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Art in Review. Rodney Graham, Ken Johnson, The New York Times

May 16, 2013

Rodney Graham, Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour, 2012- 2013

Rodney Graham’s “Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour” (2012- 2013), plays on a painting by Thomas Eakins.

303 Gallery

507 West 24th Street, Chelsea

Through June 15


In this exhibition’s four giant photographs, the versatile Vancouver artist Rodney Graham ponders a man’s middle age with comical ennui. High-resolution transparencies mounted on lightboxes, they are funny and touching partly because of the disproportionate relationship between their grandiose scale and their cartoonish images, which resemble those of downbeat Father’s Day greeting cards.


Each image is a fictional self-portrait. In “Cactus Fan,” Mr. Graham is a scientist in his lab. Sporting a white coat and khaki pants, he gazes at a potted cactus with colorful balloons tethered to it. A birthday or anniversary gift, presumably, it does not make him happy. Maybe it reminds him of more significant prizes that have eluded him. Incidentally, the image was inspired by a wonderful old painting called “The Cactus Enthusiast,” by Carl Spitzweg, in which a man contemplates his own spiny plants.


In “Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour,” an 18-foot-wide triptych, Mr. Graham floats at river’s edge in a beautiful wooden kayak, with a rusty railroad bridge and an ugly, industrial landscape in the background. A shaggy nature lover, he looks back at the camera with a doleful expression. This picture plays on Thomas Eakins’s great painting “The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull).”


In “The Drywaller,” Mr. Graham is a construction worker taking a cigarette break. In “Old Punk on Pay Phone,” his gray hair is spiked up and he’s wearing a studded black leather jacket. He is evidently too fossilized even to own a cellphone. The older you get, the harder it is to grow up.


-Ken Johnson