New York

Robin Rhode

New Museum of Contemporary Art/Perry Rubenstein Gallery/Museum for African Art

Robin Rhode, a young South African artist who seemed to be everywhere in New York last month, has such a light touch that fears of overexposure may be safely set aside. His performances, which have the makebelieve quality of mime, are so quickly executed as to be over almost before they begin, leaving only mental afterimages of fleeting gestures. A few chalk and charcoal drawings made on the run extend the life of these now-you-see-’em-now-you-don’t actions. Yet sensations linger. When he drew a life-size image of a car on a large, white cardboard box in the center of the main gallery at the New Museum, then proceeded to smash the “windows” with a crowbar, shattering a “door” and climbing into the “vehicle” to cause more damage from the inside, the effect of this fake violence was not fake at all. A sense of unnerving danger was the visceral response to this game of “let’s pretend.”

Darkness and danger are always present in the work of South African artists, no matter the attempts to whitewash the aftereffects of apartheid, and, Rhode, like many, remains particularly sensitive to the potential for violence to erupt under the most ordinary circumstances. During a recent performance at Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Rhode took up a position in front proof a freshly prepped wall, frequently looking over his shoulder as though anticipating that he might have to quit and run at any time. He quickly drew the outlines of a freestanding public telephone, adding several skillfully rendered receivers connected by a looped cable. He then grabbed an audience member by the wrist and had her “hold” the illusory instrument, which she did, thus pinning her to the wall, spread-eagled like a police suspect. Before one could fully absorb the ingenious humor of this small piece of interactive theater, Rhode had made his way out the door and escaped onto the street, leaving his hapless volunteer to contemplate how to end her contribution to his play.

Remarkably, such performance gems translate well into DVDs. Some of these were exhibited at eye level in the gallery, like framed paintings, one plasma screen per wall. With their stop-start quality, the colorful moving pictures of the artist drawing in chalk on a dark brick wall progress like digital flipbooks. Some share the erase-and-redraw technique of William Kentridge’s films, perhaps in homage to a fellow South African, and show Rhode in pantomime with drawn objects. In one he “carries” a huge boom box, and in a series of still photographs shot from above, he “hops” onto a drawing of a bicycle and rides away. Such wish fulfillment seems in opposition to the warning about taking photographic portraits in certain cultures, considered as stealing a person’s soul; these drawings, instead, are the spirits of objects waiting to be possessed.

An awareness of African custom and European art history, of “street art” (whether by Keith Haring or Samo, aka Jean-Michel Basquiat), and of the deadpan body language of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin is evident in the fast-paced maneuvers of this young sophisticate. No matter the physical manifestations of his talent, in drawings, photographs, or DVDs, he seems to be well aware of the fragility of it all. An almost invisible work of his in a group exhibition at the Museum for African Art, comprising slides of street works projected just eight inches high at floor level, seems a modest acknowledgement of how little we are really able to contribute to our world, before, as Marx noted, “all that is solid melts into air.”

RoseLee Goldberg