Robin Rhode’s Borne Frieze

The first thing you notice when you walk into Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Chelsea, New York, is a traditional white cube room, with a desk close to the window facing 22nd Street, where the art gallery’s requisite pretty young woman is seated. But then, the rest is unexpected: the large, east-facing wall, where the most audience-friendly work would usually be installed, is one of Robin Rhode’s more challenging pieces: a life-sized stencil-sprayed skeleton is suspended on the wall, its arms raised high like a Christ figure, or on the way to position itself in a “Don’t shoot, I’m unarmed” pose familiar to any American. Threaded along each bony arm is a row of stencilled wire hangers, where observers can attach any projected costume they wish to: this skeletal structure will be the most long-lasting trace we leave when we depart life, but of course, we play hide-and-seek with the fact of our mortality, clothing it in various guises. A spool of actual black barbed wire, its thorny length and jagged hooks curling across the length of the gallery’s wall, is fixed above the skeleton stenciled skull – it is Christ’s crown of thorns, deconstructed.

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Borne Frieze is a play on the popular moniker “born free”, used to denote the generation of South Africans born into, or who came of age after the first democratic elections in 1994. The gallery’s publicity material states that the artist builds on his love for “visual and verbal puns”, and that:

Borne Frieze creates a bridge between the political heritage of his home country and the energy, spontaneity, and ephemerality of his artistic practice, which has long included the wall drawing as a key form.  By bringing an object, idea, or action forth (borne) to a medium central to Rhode’s practice such as the wall (frieze), the artist evokes the improvisational and vibrant nature of his work.

However, rather than uncritically “imbuing his work with a sense of freedom and change that is evocative of this time,” Rhode is also exploring contradictions: the ways in which the art market and commercial art fairs (like Frieze) offer opportunity, yet entrap artists as part of capitalist production. He may also be commenting on the limited mobility to which the majority of South Africans have access, the barbed wire surrounding that perceived freedom into which he and his generation were born, the weight of the high expectations they must bear, the impossibility of moving forward given the socio-economic conditions they face, and the small windows, open high above, through which a few may escape into the dark night.

In the adjoining room, Rhode has included white chalk drawings of bicycles – playful figures of mechanical (yet animated) objects, some of which show movement and mobility – on walls painted in a light-absorbing matte-black paint. His characteristic use of minimal strokes, and the “speed lines” used to show that the bikes are in motion, reminded me of the Russian futurist artist Natalia Goncharova’s Cyclist, which exhibited her similar fascination with dynamic movement of machinery and the restless pace of urban modernity. In Rhodes’ work, the bicycles are devoid of a human figure, and the mobility they offer is limited: a small screen shows video of him rolling a painted bike around the circumference of the smaller second room of the gallery, leaving a chalk-white line on the black floor – evocative of chalk lines used to denote the position of a body after a violent crime has taken place.

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The evocation of a crime is stressed by strewn pages of The New York Times in four different spots in the room. The June 19, 2015 front-page headline announces news of the murders at a historic black church in North Carolina at the hands of a white supremacist – who, himself, evoked Rhodesian and apartheid South African white supremacists as his inspiration. On each front page, Rhode has placed a pair of shoes, spray painted them, and left the ghost of their presence. The hightops that left that trace on three of The New York Times front pages are still present on the Times‘ pages near the south-facing wall, waiting. Next to them, the can of spray paint he used. Positioned above some of the chalk drawings of bikes are white frames of awning windows – the kind that are usually installed high on walls of rooms that are almost below ground-level. Rhode has left the awnings wide open, as if to invite us to sneak out, or for a lover to sneak in. From the third room, where The Moon is Asleep is playing on a continuous, ethereal loop, I hear the voice of a poet, calling out in a restless night, calling out to such a lost love, and finally, resigning to hope lost: “The moon,” he says, “is asleep.”

Another room, also painted completely in black, contains massive sculptures of two lightbulbs – one in chalk, another in charcoal. The lightbulbs lie on the ground, amidst sprawling spools of rope. A strobe light flickers on and off above, lighting the scene momentarily: sometimes we see the bulbs, sometimes they sit in the dark, silent obstacles liable to trip us.

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In the video showing Rhode at work, he moves the bike awkwardly and stiffly. The artist labours to push it, willing the wheels – immobilised, perhaps, by the white paint used to blanket it – to roll. It’s a trick bike that promises movement, but is “tricked out” not to make it faster or more stylish, but to hinder progress. The non-present potential rider of this bike won’t get far, though observers may point to the vehicle, and say, “But you had a bike. Why didn’t you get anywhere?” The moon, we know, is fickle; sometimes, it dozes off, and disappears altogether. Some things that appear to be chances and opportunities only wink at us with tempting possibility, only to leave us empty. And this mortality, this game that claims to offer us liberty and yet hobbles us, this illusion of freedom within sweet-sour entrapment, is all that we may have left to make us peddle from one day to the next.

Robin Rhode is also showing work at at the Drawing Center in NYC, from July 16 to Aug 30. He is represented by Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg in South Africa, and Lehmann Maupin in NYC.

His first solo exhibition, Recycled Matter, short films where French performer Jean-Baptiste André “mimes his journey through a range of wall-drawn and theatrical environments, interacting with props and sculptural elements that are remnants of previous artworks taken from Rhode’s studio” was shown at Stevenson, Johannesburg earlier this year.

Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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