/ 7 February 2017

From a distance: Robin Rhode reimagines the normal

Lavender Hills
Lavender Hills

In a Guardian story headlined “A family trip back to Nigeria,” writer Helon Habila wants to tell his mother of his guilt about living far away from home. He wants to explain that writers often have to “distance themselves from home in order to be able to create a more perfect home in their books”. Habila’s 2012 homecoming (to Gombe state in the north east of the country) is one racked with the spectre of violence wielded by Boko Haram. But the festivities that typify reunion win the day.

Similarly, with Paths and Fields, his new show at Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, Germany-based South African artist Robin Rhode uses distance to imagine new possibilities in a South African life. An accusation sometimes pinned on Rhode is that the artist, renowned for his performed and photographed works that often crack open the third dimension from two dimensional surfaces, is no longer making “edgy” work.

In a 2016 Art Basel Salon panel chaired by curator and collector Andile Magengelele, Rhode betrays an anxiety to counter the claim, ascribing this apparently receding “edge” to his historical ties to the world of street art.

To some extent, Rhode’s Paths and Fields show is, in fact, a reminder that the artist has perpetually existed in a more liminal space, one not really validated by the street (read: graffiti artists), but also one perpetually courted by the art establishment by virtue of how he has referenced the art historical canon. The show is part of a trajectory where the artist has continually strived to revisit his signature style while infusing it with new references gathered from creative and physical sojourns. Incidentally, a large canon of the artist’s work continues to be created from Johannesburg’s streets.

The new exhibition consists largely of his photographed conceptual drawings – this time with a decided emphasis on colour – as well as various installations. Even as a student in the 1990s, Rhode had one eye set on the mechanics of his practice, a playful and inventive allegory to a creeping cultural imperialism, but one seeking less to critique it than to transcend it.

He describes his approach then as more practice and less theory. A signature piece from his early canon He Got Game, (taken from a Spike Lee film of the same name) features Rhode planted on the ground, comically simulating dunking a basketball in 12 frames. It suggests Rhode to have not only been obviously aware of the effect of globalisation on his generation (he says he had been playing basketball at the time), but to have had the coolness to see it as a lampoonable continuum as opposed to an extinction event.

Likewise, in the context of his emigration to Germany (Rhode has lived there since 2002) and his confrontation with cultural theory based on Western modernity, Rhode speaks of having had to come to terms with the value of his lived experience in South Africa and simultaneously developing a vocabulary that is referential to the rest of the world.

Hence by continually referencing American artist Josef Albers, including in this latest exhibition (Albers pioneered sustained explorations into the relativity of colour), Rhode is furthering his studies into the interplay between the dimensions.

If one takes, specifically, the triptych of photographs titled Lavender Hills, in which Rhode presents a tilting door in the style of an Albers image, he understands that the drama needs to be completed by movement, alluding to the rising swell which appears to overwhelm the performing figure. It’s an ambitious recontextualisation but one in which allusion trumps execution.

Slalom, by Robin Rhode.

Slalom, says Rhode, is inspired by French avant-gardist Yves Klein’s photomontage Leap into the Void, in which the artist appears to leap from a high wall towards the street. Yves’s process included tarpaulins held at ground level and the blending of negatives to complete the photograph. Here, Rhode, or his stand-in, is caught in contemplation, perhaps aspiring to a leap otherwise deferred.

In other parts, Rhode gathers mementos of recent triumphs.

Trees/Earth/Paths and Fields includes two video installations as well as a wall of posters featuring swirling circular black spray-painted strokes. The latter featured last year as the flooring to Rhode’s triumphant Performa 15 staging of Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung in New York’s Times Square. Rhode had reframed the opera to include a male performer, working in an interpretation of the original’s howling, anguished soprano to represent the wails of a traumatised Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Today, as one enters the gallery, one does so to face an entire posterised wall representing these harrowing screams. The twin monitors, set feet apart on plinths, beam a monochrome wilderness of forest and earth.

Here and elsewhere, Rhode seems to be wanting space to indulge his influences. The works, especially those made earlier, bear the strong influence of the Arte Povera movement. The elemental nature and the visceral feel of the pieces titled Works on White Paper (works in which oily, linear imprints have been made on the surface), find companion with recent video works Trees/Earth (2016), Stone Drawings (2007-8) and Burnt Key (2011).

Rhode has been patient with the myriad projections cast on to his work: “Is it street?” “Is it speaking to high levels of South Africa’s crime and violence?” “Has he lost touch?” Although there might be a slight glibness to some pieces ( Lotto, for example, is a print with scrawled and underlined black numbers), the insistence on the therapeutic qualities of colour perhaps comes from an awareness that he cannot pretend to be the country’s expatriate spokesperson.

Works such as RYB, Paradise and Inverted Cycle, all with strong use of geometric colour and playfulness, avail themselves to infinitely more readings than Rhode’s past, similar outdoor explorations, such as those contained in Paries Pictus. Yes, they suggest an agility at war with adversity but they also insist on a defiant innocence. They perform, in his words, “a form of urban shamanism” and a desire to be free when all around us has been demarcated and defined.

In Paths and Fields, Rhode seems to invite us all to a skillful dance with his own definition of edge –  “life and death”, if only to express his tensions about being loosed from home.