Vancouver artist Rodney Graham remembers his generosity, genius

Vancouver artist Rodney Graham, 73, is remembered by friends and fellow artists as a generous man and a brilliant artist after his death over the weekend.

Four of the galleries that represented Graham announced his death on Monday, saying he died after a year-long battle with cancer.

« We have lost our dear Rodney, a genius entertainer, dear friend, master of disguise, lively dresser, purveyor of dry humour, amazing songwriter, ever modest, quiet intellectual, gifted amateur, a professional connoisseur, a Sunday painter who rarely worked Sundays, ultimately a true professional in every sense of what it means to be an artist, » Nicholas Logsdail, founder of Lisson Gallery in London, said in the announcement posted online. .

In Vancouver, Graham is perhaps best known for one of his more recent works, Rotating Chandeliera public art installation under the Granville Street Bridge.

Spinning Chandelier, a massive public art installation designed by Rodney Graham and unveiled in 2019 cost $4.8 million and was commissioned by a developer building a nearby skyscraper. Three times a day, the chandelier descends and begins to spin, before stopping and ascending to the bridge under which it hangs. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The piece was commissioned for the City of Vancouver by developer Westbank as part of a deal when Vancouver House, a skyscraper near the north end of the bridge, was pending approval. It was unveiled with some controversy, both for its skyrocketing cost, $4.8 million, and for the symbolism of a luxury chandelier hanging in a city struggling with affordability.

Reid Shier, director of the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver, worked with Graham on Spinning Chandelier as a public art consultant for Westbank.

« If you look closely at this work, you’re looking at a new way of thinking about architecture in the city, about the infrastructure built into the city, about space that’s unused and not thought out and taken for granted – and Rodney brought it back. -imagined in a truly extraordinary and transformative way. »

« It’s really about the relationship between this chandelier and the bridge and what and how we can imagine the city. »

paddler mouth of the seymour
Installation view of Rodney Graham, Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour, 2012–13 in Pictures from Here, an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, May 19–September 4, 2017. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

Shier also called Graham a friend, saying his death on Saturday was « extremely sad » and that even at 73, Graham was extremely young and young at heart and still working at the peak of his career.

« I think the general consensus was that there was so much more to expect from him, and he was really in a great creative moment that it feels like a career cut short and a life cut short. »

Shier and others describe Graham as a polymath – a brilliant artist capable of moving from one conceptual discipline to another.

Graham was part of the Vancouver School of Conceptual Photography, which developed in the 1980s, alongside artists like Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace (both of whom played with Graham in the post-punk/new band late 1970s wave, U-J3RK5), Ken Lum and Stan Douglas.

Douglas declined a CBC interview request after Graham’s death, but said he was saddened by the news.

« I called Rodney a friend, » he said.

rodney graham
Rodney Graham. Artist bar, 1950s, 2016. C-print. (Courtesy of Rodney Graham)

Beyond his photography, in which Graham often played a starring role, he was also known for his painting, sculpture, music, film and perhaps his most internationally known work, Isle of Vexationwhich was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1997.

Isle of Vexation is a looping video installation featuring a shipwrecked pirate, played by Graham, in which he is seen asleep or unconscious before getting up to fetch a coconut from a tree, which falls and hits him in the head, sending the man on the ground and starting the loop again.

Graham received the Audain Lifetime Achievement Award in the Visual Arts in 2011 and was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2016.

Author Ben Street posted on Twitter on Monday: « Rodney Graham’s Isle of Vexationa work of art with its own permanent wing in my head. »

William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and pioneer of the cyberpunk genre, also posted a note about Graham’s death on Twitter, commenting on his wonderful sense of humor.

For Elizabeth Starr, a longtime friend who also worked for Graham as a personal assistant in Vancouver, her death came as no surprise. She had recently visited him in the hospital, bringing Graham things like lip balm.

Starr remembers Graham as a generous person and called him a genius. She said he even let her live in his basement during a time when she was going through a tough time.

Starr now owns Liberty Bakery in Vancouver, which she purchased in early 2021 from Graham and two other partners.

Shier also commented on Graham’s generosity saying, « You could really feel his deep love and enthusiasm for the world around him, and he gave so much. It was such a pleasure to be around him and to have a conversation with him. »


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