New York

Robin Rhode

Perry Rubenstein Gallery

Though much of his work depends on performance, South African artist Robin Rhode’s recent exhibition at Perry Rubenstein Gallery comprised elegant sculpture, photography, and film that functions independently of the action that gave birth to it. Spade, 2007, for example, is a small cast of a shovel in gold-plated bronze. A succinct fusion of the rarefied and the quotidian, it mutely avers that value lies in the doing as much as in what gets done. Empties, 2007, comprises a Carling beer crate filled with hand-blown dark green bottles whose fragile stems are gracefully elongated to human height and resemble flowing reeds. The contrast between the found crate and the “reproduction” bottles might also reference the gap between the political context of the artist’s boyhood (due perhaps to its black label, Carling was associated among South Africans with the struggle against apartheid) and his current professional success.

One critic notes that Rhode’s subjects resonate with his background as a “colored” South African (the term is used in that country to denote people of mixed race). The interplay of much black and white media in the exhibit—the large wall drawing Head and Tales, 2007, which consists of dark marks made using spray paint and abalone shells cast from charcoal—arguably accentuate this. (One charcoal shell is displayed as part of the work.) Yet his references are also close to being universal. Soap and Water, 2007, for example, features an old-style bicycle cast out of green soap, lying on the floor next to a bronze bucket of water. It is a remarkably allusive form, connoting all the chores one might do to acquire a bike, as well as the ephemeral nature of even the most treasured possession.

Still, it’s in the performance-related works that Rhode, however demurely, most fully emerges. Table of Contents, 2006, is a sequence of thirty-six photographs of the artist standing before a black wall on which he has spray-painted, in white, the rudimentary outline of a Ping-Pong table. From image to image we see the artist running from one end of the table to the other, appearing to whap a ball (also drawn in white paint) back and forth as he goes. The effacements taking place between each shot and the subsequent one (the previous mark having been blacked out) is a large part of the fun here, as is the contrast between the artificiality of his posing for each shot and the nevertheless convincing nature of the simple illusion. In the concluding shots, his Ping-Pong ball, smacked high in the air on one return, shatters into a constellation of blots. The expression of astonishment on the artist’s face in the work’s final frame neatly conveys Rhodes’s capacity for wonder. While his art carries a political charge, it feels far more tentative (if irrepressible) and even optimistic than obvious or insistent.

In his 16 mm black-and-white film The Candle, 2007—displayed at Rubenstein’s Twenty-fourth Street space—Rhode makes a drawing of a small fire, then actually lights, warms himself with, and finally extinguishes it. The grainy texture of the film heightens the association with the canny fools of cinema’s silent era, personifications of alienated dignity. As the coins in Rhode’s Cap n’ Coins, 2007, signify, Rhode (like any artist) plays for his supper, but with a striking combination of dexterity and vigor.

Tom Breidenbach