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It’s a trip, ticking off the layers of references that infuse the work of Rodney Graham. The Vancouver artist is a walking library of cultural allusions, a roving brain that digs into art high and low: Duchamp and Picasso, Isaac Newton and Sigmund Freud, even Pink Floyd and vintage girlie magazines. These are the building blocks with which the genre-busting Renaissance man has constructed his internationally renowned body of work.

Here at home, this is Graham’s summer, with three interrelated shows opening on a scattered schedule: at the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang, the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC, and the Charles H. Scott Gallery at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Many of these works have never been shown in Vancouver, and create an opportunity to view through a new lens one of the city’s – the country’s – great artists. Graham’s work spans painting, installations and, most prominently, film, video and photography. Often injected with a lively and cerebral humour, his artistic practice demands the most serious consideration. His work is in the collections of London’s Tate Modern, the Pompidou in Paris, the Met and the MoMA in New York, as well as the National Gallery of Canada.

“Rodney lives here, but Rodney’s art life is abroad and he’s immensely respected for it,” says Bob Rennie, the Vancouver real-estate powerhouse who has built his own museum and a staggering collection of contemporary art – 226 artists, of whom 47, including Graham, are represented in-depth. It was Rennie who initiated the three-show year, lending works from his collection to the Belkin and the Scott.

“Rodney is very, very generous with the viewer,” says Rennie. “He inserts himself into the work but he also allows us to absorb it at different levels … and he has a way of playing with us that engages the viewer [that] very few artists are able to accomplish.”

Graham is both the brains behind his work and often the face of it, playing the central character in his photographs and films. A sort of Meryl Streep of photoconceptualists, he is a chameleon who can disappear into the persona of a 17th-century castaway, a serious chemist, a joyful Bohemian, a Swinging Sixties hobby painter.

“I always say it’s like Tom Cruise,” says Graham, 65. “I’m the actor/executive producer.” On set, he relies on his team of collaborators to shoot the work, while he focuses on playing the role.

The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 (Rodney Graham)

From Steppenwolf to Venice

Graham was born in Abbotsford, B.C., in 1949. As he puts it, he was not a kid who knew he wanted to be an artist; he was more interested in writing. But at UBC his eyes were opened to the possibility of a visual-art career when he took a course in modern art history taught by pioneering photoconceptualist Ian Wallace.

“I discovered that in the art world there was this possibility to do all this kind of stuff,” says Graham, motioning to one of his sculptural installations at the Rennie Collection. “That was a time of the flourishing period of conceptual art and late minimalism … and it was an exciting time in Vancouver, too.”

He was fascinated with text – and an important early project was inspired by a strange encounter with the Hermann Hesse novel Steppenwolf. Reading a passage, Graham thought it seemed far too familiar; he discovered it had been mistakenly printed twice. This became a seed for the young conceptual artist, who went on to physically insert additional text into books by other authors, including Freud and Edgar Allan Poe.

Graham’s first video, in 1994, was Halcion Sleep, for which the already sleep-deprived artist took a multiple dose of the drug Halcion. Conked out, he was deposited in the back seat of a car by his brother and a friend, who drove him from a suburban motel back to his home in the city, filming the sleeping artist. “It was like a reverse-kidnapping kind of thing,” he says.

He riffed on that reclining, sleeping figure for his next film, Vexation Island, which he made for the 1997 Venice Biennale – and which was his art-world breakthrough. This time, he cast himself as a marooned seaman, asleep under a desert-island palm tree, who wakes up, shakes the tree, and gets clocked by a falling coconut. “I put all my money into it, every penny I had. And it was pretty impressive for the time,” says Graham of the sumptuous, nine-minute loop, shot in the British Virgin Islands. Critics were certainly impressed. The New York Times called it “delightful” and “one of the best things” at the Biennale.

“It made his career,” says Scott Watson, the director of the Belkin, which owns Vexation Island. “It upped his category from B-level to A-level.”

Leaping Hermit (Rodney Graham)

Backstories and light boxes

During a tour of the Rennie show, the first of the Vancouver exhibitions to open, Graham explains that he began casting himself in his work in part as a way to distinguish it from the oeuvres of Wall and Stan Douglas, fellow Vancouver photoconceptualists who create filmic tableaux. He was also intrigued by the idea of artistic performance. And, ever the writer, Graham creates detailed backstories for his enormous, light-box photographs.

For his 2007 triptych The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962, Graham imagines the character he is playing as a divorced professional who has found art during a midlife crisis. The man’s just back from New York, Graham explains, where he’s seen a show of Morris Louis pour paintings and become inspired to learn about art (there are art books everywhere) and give it a shot himself. He is a man of means, whose upscale West Van bachelor pad (actually a set, built inside a North Vancouver school gym) features a kick-ass early-sixties sound system (inspired by a YouTube video of Hugh Hefner). The parquet floors are covered in newspapers, which are filled with news of labour strife – a bakers’ strike has turned nasty. The gifted amateur appears to be a little casual in his endeavour, leaning back, a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he pours the yellow paint.

At the Belkin, Graham’s 2013 lightbox Cactus Fan is an homage to German artist Carl Spitzweg’s 19th-century painting The Cactus Enthusiast, in which a gentleman and a cactus appear to be bowing toward one other. In Graham’s version, the gentleman is a scientist in a lab, and the plant is a gift with colourful balloons attached. Arms crossed, the chemist stares warily at the precarious cactus/balloon combo. Across the gallery, in the 2011 triptych Leaping Hermit, Graham becomes an overgrown hippie, dancing with joy and perhaps proselytizing in his overgrown garden. Two young people – hipsters? – look on, a little embarrassed for him, but captivated. He’s showing them how it’s done.

In the last few years, Graham has had what he calls a belated turn to painting. “I kind of entered the whole discourse of art when already people were moving out of [painting],” he explains, standing next to a four-storey-high wall hung with 40 abstract oils – constituting one work, A Partial Overview of My Brief Modernist Career (2006-09) – at the Rennie Collection. “Ian and Jeff, for example – they started as painters because they’re just a couple of years older than me. But I was of that generation that, by the time I was educated, it was all about leaving painting.”

His recent paintings will be the focus of the Scott Gallery show opening in September, along with prop paintings he has made for his films and photographs, including that pour painting from The Gifted Amateur.

Left: Torqued Chandelier Release (Photo by Scott Livingstone); Right: Cactus Fan (Rodney Graham/303 Gallery)

Newtonian glitter, Ozark gong

Vancouver, where mountains and ocean tend to absorb the attention, became besotted in recent months with a proposal for a work of public art: a spinning chandelier to be installed under the Granville Street Bridge. The work – Graham’s – would be a physical manifestation of his dazzling 2005 film Torqued Chandelier Release, inspired by Newton’s famous water-bucket experiment in which the scientist observed rapid rotational motion.

In Graham’s film, a 19th-century chandelier is wound up and released – sparkling as it spins like an amusement-park swing ride, while in the gallery at the Belkin, the purpose-built projector hums and crackles, creating a sort of soundtrack. The Belkin is also showing Vexation Island, restored and gorgeous, looking every bit the breakthrough blockbuster.

Back at the Rennie Collection, Graham takes on yet another persona in the 2006 film Lobbing Potatoes at a Gong – inspired by a story he heard about Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason doing just that during a concert. Here, Graham imagines a performance by an avant-garde 1960s Fluxus artist, who tosses spuds at a gong while an audience looks on.

The artist might be from the Ozarks, Graham explains, a guy who started out by drawing whisky stills, then moved on to paintings of gongs, and photography. Near the film, a photo hangs of a pile of potatoes in a white room – Graham imagines it being called Potatoes Blocking My Studio Door. “And finally he did this [film], combined all these strands of his work into this kind of masterwork. … The idea is this is the masterpiece of the culmination of this career,” says Graham. “That was kind of the joke.”

Rodney Graham at the Rennie Art Gallery. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Rodney Graham: Collected Works runs at the Rennie Collection to Oct. 4. Rodney Graham: Torqued Chandelier Release and Other Works is at the Maurice and Helen Belkin Art Gallery to Aug. 17. Rodney Graham: Prop Paintings and Other Paintings opens at the Charles H. Scott Gallery on Sept. 17 and runs to Nov. 16.