BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 11 NOV 96
Featured in
Issue 31

Joseph Rhone

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 11 NOV 96

Joseph Rhone's exhibition creates a deft sensation of immense magnitude unfolding over indefinite time; a sense of ever amplifying space, on a scale so pliant that it can stretch and shrink in all directions. First navigating the close quarters of architecture, it breaks out across a boundless landscape. Then, galloping for a while at sea level, this feeling of infinite distance and time effortlessly lifts, arching into the heavens, to begin sliding silently through a deep and starry outer space. It is in this sense that Rhone has a inematographer's vision. He wrests us off our feet, then surges across a panoramic reverie. Being heaved into this gradual trajectory grants you time to look back, to look down on to it all and try to make sense of what only seconds before was a masterful impression of a vertiginous catapult ride.

Set against this sense of a reckless launch, his iconography appears astonishing: a studied index of navigational aids, gadgets most helpful when you are lost in the dark. Pale little night-lights that lead strangers to unfamiliar places; steps that turn smartly ­ leading to an uncertain destination; a lighthouse with a soulful, longing beacon; the lonely, dim streetlight; and the twinkling majesty of Ursa Major, the biggest of the two Dippers. He fashions miniature mises-en-scènes that blithely lend you direction, but never hint at the destination. Standing at nearly any point in the gallery you can poll them as if from the cinematographer's perch. Hovering above, with this tidy overview tucked snugly under your arm, you see how Rhone suddenly turns it all on its head by shifting scale without the least warning.

A skill of Rhone's is changing scale rhythmically, to announce that perceptions have just been swapped. Take, for example, the turning steps: built from wood and trimmed in cream-coloured household paint, they seem anonymous enough to be dull. Set near the centre of the room, they lead directly nowhere, effortlessly chiming in with the navigation leitmotif. But if you happen to walk by them at just the right angle, there, within the darkened cavity beneath the plain wooden slats, glows a miniature constellation. Tiny dots of electric lights, set into the wood beneath the stairs, masquerade as the Big Dipper. Inaudible as a baby's breath, this constellation is likely to escape our notice. Scale collapses at a deliberately dizzying speed as the lights echo the exhibition's much larger formation of Ursa Major's blueprint which has been spelled out in paler than pale night-lights spreading across a facing wall. Serendipity prevails. When you squat down, peering beneath the stairs, Rhone re-introduces you to the secret hiding place of your childhood, where your imagination whisked you away anywhere and everywhere, including the stars' distant ether. But in this same stooping manoeuvre, the dramatic collapse of scale tells you, in blunt terms, that here is a place so remote that you will never return.

There is romanticism in all this, but it is not all drippy. Instead it is the tug of melancholy, even the drama one feels when one knows that something is truly lost, perhaps forever. Here, beneath the stairs, is the pensive stench of a distinctly adult misery. Not the lost innocence of childhood, just loss. Still squatting beneath the stairs, near the stars, you see the beacon of a miniature lighthouse drawling at you with haunting insistence. Its blinking light, slow as tar, sits near a frightfully ragged coastline which Rhone has located at the architectural moment where the wall meets the gallery floor. Like everything else, the lighthouse is rendered as an impression, not abstractly styled but a hazy recollection. The floor, vast when compared to the size of this navigational sentinel, easily becomes the lighthouse's ocean. Warned away from the dangers of the jutting rocks, your eyes skim across the floor, now doubling as sea level, and reach land at an opened and oddly sized cake box. It is a ridiculous square atoll rising up out of nowhere. Centred inside this white box is a lonesome street light. Crouch down once again. The darkened landscape it dimly illuminates is nondescript; meaning that even though we can see where we are, we remain lost ­ absolutely.

Rhone communes familiarly with culture, and yet I detect nothing programmatic. The critical underpinning for his work, and much of that by younger artists with whom he shares a certain rapport, is yet to be written. His sculptures are episodic, but more importantly they are lyrical musings strung together on the subject of navigating experience within the civilised world. There is also some contemplation on whether one should think about the future: what was once written in the stars, and all that. But Rhone can only be frank on the subject of finding one's way. He has suspended the search for our whereabouts, and given up on locating meaning as some ultimate fusion of inward/outward expression. He situates his work such that it constantly defers conclusions, or destinations. And so, nothing has been settled. How very, very uncustomary ­ how bracing.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.