Robin Rhode: Take Your Mind off the Street

BY Jean Dykstra, February 3, 2013

Robin Rhode, A Spanner in the Works of Infinity, 2012-2013. Courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery

An exuberant mix of graffiti, performance art, drawing, and photography, Robin Rhode’s exhibition, on view at Lehmann Maupin through February 23, is at once street smart and indebted to the history of conceptual art. 

Rhode’s photographs document frame-by-frame sketches, in soap or charcoal or paint, of a simple narrative: the arc of a baton as it twirls through the air, a small ship crisscrossing through a current, a bird making its way from perch to perch on a length of barbed wire. 

The artist himself interacts – one could almost say dances — with the drawings as they unfold in the photographs. Rhode has taken this interactive aspect of his work to Lehmann Maupin’s Chrystie Street location, where he stenciled pictures on the walls and invited a group of first-graders from the South Bronx to fill them in. At the gallery through March 16, these small staged rebellions – encouraging the kids to draw on gallery walls — is a partnership with Time In, which connects underserved children to arts institutions. 

Robin Rhode, Blackness Blooms, 2012-2013. Courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery

This notion of empowerment is an undercurrent in Rhode’s work, and he takes full advantage of the defiant quality inherent in graffiti and street art within the confines of a white-walled gallery. Based in Berlin, he was born in Cape Town and raised in Johannesburg, and his work casts a wide net in terms of references, from South African traditions of storytelling and mural making, to Edwearde Muybridge’s motion studies, stop action films, flip books, and street artists like Vito Acconci, whom Rhodes has cited as an early influence. Class and race are swept up in the mix here as well, but his work is too free-spirited to take itself, or its politics, too seriously. One series of photographs shows Rhode with a giant comb, grooming a drawing depicting a growing afro.  Just as playfully, his work conflates time and space, compressing a series of drawings into a moment, and blending drawing, performance and photography into multi-dimensional pieces. 

The photographs shown here are not radically different from the work selected by Eva Respini for the New Photography 05 show at MoMA, eight years ago (except for two oversized compasses in the middle of the gallery, which struck me as simplistic and puzzling). They smart and whimsical, but I’m eager to see where Rhode goes from here.