In one image he's a reclining soldier and in another he's a 1970s-era culture maker past his prime who's trying to remain groovy, his sky-blue socked feet snug in fur-lined slippers.
Multidisciplinary artist Graham says he places himself in his work because he'd rather be directed than direct.
"Also, it limits the subject, it's always just something I can do," he said.
Grant Arnold, who curated the exhibit Rodney Graham: Canadian Humourist at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Sept. 30, said Graham's repeated presence in the four large light boxes and film installation displayed on the main floor of the gallery alongside the Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters, The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, questions the idea of artwork bridging the viewer with the artist's consciousness.
"You continue to see the artist, but you don't really know anything about him," Arnold said.
The Vancouver-based artist has been creating photographs, installations, music, books, videos and films since the late 1970s. He represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1997 and his work has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
"He shows all over the world but a lot of his work doesn't get shown in Vancouver that often so it is an opportunity to show new work," said Arnold.
The richly hued picture of Graham as a soldier reclining on a worn wooden floor against an upturned chair, a bugle by his side, was inspired by an engraving Graham saw. The original image depicted the Paris studio of an academic painter of military scenes in the late 1800s with a model in the uniform of the French National Guard lying prone on the floor.
Graham notes artists of the time worked to make their studios impressive to clients.
"It looks even a little stage-y then," he said.
Instead of the mustachioed painter Alphonse de Neuville depicted in the recreation, viewers see Graham as the model from the vantage of the artist.
Graham traded the uniform for a cardigan and bowtie for the light box installation called Small Basement Camera Shop circa 1937. He says the original image of a shop in Manitoba also had a staged feel.
Noticing workers on smoke breaks when he drove around the city while his art studio was being renovated inspired the piece Betula Pendula 'Fastigiata' (Sous Chef on Smoke Break). It depicts Graham in chef's whites and wooden clogs leaning against an impressive silver birch, or betula pendula, in Queen Elizabeth Park.
"I'm thinking of doing four seasons of smoke breaks," Graham said.
He thought of writers including Province columnist, magazine writer and playwright Eric Nicol, who died in 2011, for the exhibit's title piece that shows Graham sporting swollen sideburns, in an upscale study that's been tweaked with over-bright 1970s-era touches including a garish tea cozy.
The whirring of the film projector in an adjacent room provides an aural backdrop for the light boxes. The sound emanates from a green-tinted projector that features a flat capsule-shaped looping device that reveals cascading lengths of film. The film intersperses shots of Graham smoking a pipe with shots of a foaming sink overflowing and is intended to explore how connections can be made through unrelated scenes through editing.
"I thought of them separately," Graham said. "I thought of making a film about pipe smoking and one about bubbles."