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visual art

Clockwise, from top: Canadian Humourist; Sous Chef; Small Basement Camera Shop, circa 1937; Old Punk on Pay Phone.

One of the only consolations of clearing the hurdle of the big six-oh is being able to refer to oneself as a sexagenarian – a term whose Austin Powers grooviness dispels the whiff of geriatric onset. But facts must be faced. Vancouver artist Rodney Graham, who cleared that hurdle a few years ago, is addressing the matter these days with a series of back-lit costumed self-portraits which face the tragicomic predicament of incipient obsolescence with wit and verve, infused – of course – with the geeky charm for which he is widely beloved. A small show of these new works at the Vancouver Art Gallery allows a view onto his current thoughts.

The tour de force is Canadian Humourist (2011), spelled with a "u," as is the custom of us north-of-the-49thers. "I had in mind the sort of Pierre Berton character," says Graham. His fuzzy-slippered protagonist is a man immersed in modern ideas, Canadiana and tweedy anglophilia – a public media personality, perhaps, and an aficionado of all things CBC and NFB. Copies of Stephen Leacock, Ian Fleming and Vancouver humour columnist Eric Nicol are readily to hand, as are volumes on British cartooning, painting, country inns and social services. (The traditional jam-centred cookies from Marks & Spencer add a nice touch, and the artist had the tea cozy knitted for the occasion.) "I really like his white turtleneck with the sports jacket, and those huge sideburns," Graham says. "This is a guy who is past his prime, but his sideburns kind of help to maintain his level of grooviness. It's about a certain kind of white male. His era is over." Graham professes a fascination for the type, waxing eloquent for a few moments on the sideburns of Isaac Asimov and Harold Town, those bushy blossomings of manhood in final flower.

Other recent works continue this inquiry into human entropy. In one, Graham, clad as a rumpsprung sous-chef, loiters beneath a tree on his smoke break. "I like the idea that he is a sous-chef," Graham says. "He's a guy who is maybe just a little bit not that ambitious." Another work shows Graham in the guise of a nerdy camera-shop clerk, circa 1937, an image he based on a little contact print he found in an antique shop in East Vancouver. "I assume it was the sort of basement camera shop that you used to find in department stores," he remembers. "But this one had a kind of Hitchcock feeling to it. There's something weird about him, and about the way the space feels like a stage set." The piece is an homage, he says, to the fast-disappearing art of film photography, and there's delicious irony in the fact that he has used digital technology to clean up the image of the antique cameras on the counter, reinvesting them with that spanking-new gleam.

Graham's upcoming show at Johnen Galerie Berlin this September continues these investigations into decline, including a photograph of an aging rocker talking on a pay phone. (Graham also sidelines as a musician.) "This is the last old crust punk in the world talking on the last pay phone in the world," Graham says. "I mean, who even uses pay phones any more? Aren't they just for drug deals?" It's a character he inhabits with ease, the youthful rebel in old(er) age. "I mean, my leading-man days are kind of behind me," he laughs. "I'm looking for roles now that I can actually play."

Rodney Graham: Canadian Humourist continues at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Sept. 30. Graham has solo shows this fall at Johnen Galerie Berlin (opening Sept. 11) and Donald Young Gallery in Chicago (opening Sept. 22).