Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York, USA
Paul Klee took a line for a walk: South African Robin Rhode takes it on the prowl. Rhode made his solo New York début with photographs and digital animations set off by Night Caller (2004) the residue of a wall drawing left behind by his opening night performance. Rhode’s own electronic soundtracks backed the animations, with music ranging from unremarkably ambient to gently industrial. By combining mundane drawing materials with tricked-out high-tech, Rhode charges all his work with scrappy, urban energy lifted directly from the street. The result is art both specific to South Africa and generically international.
Rhode’s performances and recorded work have an athletic physicality, and his street-kid outfits favour colours associated with South African sports teams. The backdrop for his photographs is often grey, dilapidated city concrete and asphalt. In the cracks and indigenous graffiti he finds a bleak surface for his surprisingly fanciful work. Drawn on walls and courtyards, or directly onto the surface of the street, his cartoonish chalk and charcoal images are often pressed into the service of three-dimensional game-playing illusion. In New Kids on the Bike (2002) digitally animated aerial shots depict a chalked-in bicycle on which two school-age boys playfully drape themselves and their backpacks. Along with clear references to Hip-Hop, sports and fashion, Rhode is also invoking an initiation rite of many South African high schools, in which newcomers are forced to ‘ride’ a wall-drawn bike.
The most complex and rewarding use of this illusionistic freeze-frame technique is in The Stripper (2004), a digital animation whose narrative effect is like an elegant flip-book. Rhode is seen surreptitiously ‘dismantling’ a charcoal drawing of a van by wiping away each part, the ghost image suggestive of a ruined black and white photograph, an urban haze or, most blatantly, the evidence of a professional criminal at work. Dressed in knee-length black trousers, black shirt and docker’s cap, Rhode trudges from one end of the drawing to the other, his large frame bent with effort. As in all his pieces, Rhode never breaks character or the imaginative conceit; his commitment to treating the drawing as a three-dimensional object is complete. He shrewdly exploits the tension between the permanence of the surface and the ephemera of his work. In one of the last shots he makes off with the vehicle’s ‘antenna’, holding it like a wand – an example of the unfortunate whimsy to which he is often prone.
Stone Flag (2004) is the most resonant of these new works. Dressed in a starkly pure white outfit of his own creation that simultaneously suggests more upmarket sports such as cricket or tennis, Rhode depicts himself in nine colour photographs (the gestative number surely no accident), wielding a sculptured flag. In each he’s seen again from above, against the background of tired, cracked concrete in his mother’s Johannesburg yard. The faint shadows of her homely clothes line and pins are delicately visible in the background. A ‘flag’ composed of a dozen red-clay bricks ripples and flaps from a pole of ragged and rusty pipe that Rhode wields in his hands. In each shot Rhode mimes the struggle to control the flag, its apparent motion marked by the trace of red that each successive adjustment leaves behind on the cheerless concrete. Among the most universal of post-apartheid South Africa’s symbols is its new flag. In using bricks – quite literally the building blocks of a new civil society – Rhode elevates Stone Flag from gimmickry to thoughtfulness. Unlike so much else in this show, the elements of this piece vault over the purely narrative to raise interesting questions about symbols, both personal and political.
Effective, memorable performance requires a degree of sheer audacity, and in the wake of artists such as Adrian Piper, Paul McCarthy or David Hammons the ante is extremely high. Although clever and definitely versed in all the art-historical reference points any canny contemporary artist needs to know – most obviously Marcel Duchamp (conceptual cheekiness) and Walter Benjamin (mimesis) – Rhode rarely gets beyond a flat-footed hipness. The ten black and white photographs that compose Stacked Drawing (2004), for example, show him dressed in black from cap to trainers, throwing breeze blocks at the then under-construction gallery. The process leaves white imprints on the wall, each brick arcing into a ‘stack’, a reaction to a nearby Donald Judd show up at the time. There’s an implicit aggressiveness in tossing the bricks, yet the piece feels more like a prank than a considered response. Despite Rhode’s self-described intimacy with the rough and criminal elements of Johannesburg, his interpretations display a reassuring, safety-netted level of risk. Rather than instilling a real sense of desperation and danger, his menace remains at best adolescent.