Review: Robin Rhode at Lehmann Maupin
By: Emily Hall
The protagonist of Robin Rhode’s photographic works, who is played either by the artist or a stand-in for him, is a fellow in casual street gear-puffer jacket, sneakers, watch cap, sunglasses. His face is almost always turned from the camera, his hands often covered in paint. He is a mysterious presence in these works-an Edward Gorey character in pristine high-tops-but also a bit mystified, caught up, like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, in situations beyond his control.
Sequences of photographs, which show this character interacting with images stenciled, chalked, or painted onto walls and sidewalks, portray his actions as frames in a film would. In Bird on Wires (all works 2012-13), the photos depict a stenciled bird flying over six rows of real barbed wire strung across the wall, while the protagonist, dressed all in black and wearing a bright-orange backpack, appears from frame to frame to pull himself along the wires until the bird finally comes to perch on his hand. In The Point of Vanishing, posters are pasted on a wall, one after another, in a grid formation, portraying a boat sailing toward us and away again; the protagonist, in a yellow slicker-now prone, now crouched, now backing up crabwise on hands and feet-seems to shoot rays from his eyes that trap the boats in his line of sight (an effect achieved with goggles and elastic string).
The playfulness of these works belies the artist’s somewhat hard-headed engagement with strategies of representation. The photos depict drawings in the word’s most fundamental sense, yet they complicate this basic mode of picturing by opening up the term to include such conditions as existing cracks in the wall or, in The Point of Vanishing, the ripples created by gluing the posters, which form three-dimensional waves on the flat surfaces. The presence ofthe protagonist-the creator, the perceiver-means the works also document a performance. A pair of sculptures, of roughly six-foot-high drawing Compasses that seem to dance in the middle of the gallery, take this idea in a new direction for Rhode, but come off for the most part like visual puns.
The artist and the stencils’ movements are so expertly rendered and shown in the medium of photography, that venerable signifier of empirical truth-that one could be tempted to believe that this two-dimensional graffiti has, in fact, come to life. But Rhode seems less invested in fooling us than in making us see. In Zootrope, our character does a neat flip atop a stenciled car that in each frame is annotated with more and more lines denoting movement. Arranged in a circle, the images suggest a sundial and, in fact, show the sun shifting from frame to frame. This reveals, in the placement and shape of the shadows, that the protagonist is doing his “flip” while lying on the sidewalk-an illusion in plain sight.
At Lehmann Maupin’s Lower East Side gallery, Rhode presented the results of a collaboration with Time In, a New York-based nonprofit that provides arts education to underprivileged schoolchildren. Some fifty kids from PS 63 in the South Bronx were invited to color in large stencils of birds, buildings, and other less-identifiable things on the walls of the grand, high-ceilinged gallery and to complete four connect-the-dot versions of images from Rhode’s works, including the bird from Bird on Wires. This performance was carried out, as might be expected, with an enormous amount of glee. The children were given crayons that were too big for one person to handle alone, so that one child was required to hold the crayon aloft and another to maneuver it; the exuberant scribbling around the straitlaced outlines is both jumpy and joyful. This serious play dovetails with one of the signal themes of Rhode’s work: the kind of disruption that comes from drawing on walls.