Art
The Endless Inspiration Robin Rhode Drew from One Wall
Robin Rhode, Lute of Pythagorus, 2017 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Robin Rhode, Lute of Pythagorus, 2017 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

In 2011, the South African artist Robin Rhode began a long and complicated relationship with a wall. He had been looking for a new surface on which to create his street paintings—ephemeral compositions that play the backdrop to the movements of a performer, Kevin Narain, in Rhode’s poetic, serialized photographs that suggest Eadweard Muybridge-esque time-lapses. And this wall, located on a vacant lot in the Newclare neighborhood of western Johannesburg, came to him auspiciously. A local hairdresser had heard of his search, and told him she knew just the place. She introduced him to the landlord who owned the lot, Mr. Mills, and he and Rhode settled on an arrangement over a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. (It has since become their tradition to discuss their lives and the community of Newclare over a bottle of whiskey.)

The artist estimates that over the past seven years he has completed 20 or more large-scale works at the Broken Wall, as he calls it, named for a crack that snakes diagonally across one section of it. It’s a spectacular wall, Rhode says, because the daytime brings it ample sunlight, and there’s plenty of space around it, affording him the distance to capture it effectively in photographs. He has grown fond of its special features, including a peculiar oak tree that stands in front of it. “It’s a very very interesting tree because it’s in the shape of a heart,” says Rhode. “So there’s a lot of spiritual symbolism there.”

Portrait of Robin Rhode. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Portrait of Robin Rhode. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

But now the relationship is drawing to a close. Rhode announced in a 2017 letter published in Art Africa that he would be quitting the wall due to the increasing risk he faces working in the neighborhood, which he says is plagued with high levels of unemployment, violence, and drug abuse—and where he and his crew (local men who have become his studio hands) have been targeted by gang members. Rhode describes having hired a security detail to protect him from this continual threat. The news lends all the more poignancy—and, certainly, a dose of drama—to his latest body of work, which is currently on view in an exhibition, “The Geometry of Colour,” at Lehmann Maupin in New York.

The new works remain faithful to the core ingredients of his signature practice, and as with past works, they hint at the social conditions they developed out of. In Black Friday—1 Billion (2016), a stray shopping cart becomes a prop for Narain—dressed all in black, with a stocking over his head, to create the illusion of a silhouette—as he responds to a giant cubic form, painted in vermillion on the white-washed wall, and a series of smaller geometric parts that appear in progressive images.

Rhode conceived of the square as a representation of the number one billion, broken down proportionally to 100 million, one million, and so on. “It speaks about value systems, consumerism, wealth,” he says. Yet the artist sees these latest works, in particular, as a rejection of the external world and the social tensions that surround the wall. Whereas his earlier works were often looser, scrappier, line drawings, Rhode has taken a turn toward Minimalist volumes and color theory, invoking the influence of Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt, and Carl Andre.

Robin Rhode, Under the Sun, 2017 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Robin Rhode, Under the Sun, 2017 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Robin Rhode, Under the Sun, 2017 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Robin Rhode, Under the Sun, 2017 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

He is grappling with the idea of “the infinitive, the universal,” he says, “to stall the chaos and anarchy” that he and his crew are regularly confronted with. A quote printed on the wall of Lehmann Maupin nods to the influence of another modernist, Le Corbusier: “In order to save himself from this chaos, in order to provide himself with a bearable, acceptable framework for his existence, one productive of human well-being and control, man has projected the laws of nature into a system that is a manifestation of the human spirit itself: geometry.”

In Under the Sun (2017), a grid of paintings in which the performer, Narain, basks in the light of a rising sun, the artist has reimagined our life-giving star in geometric proportions, distilling it into a series of squares, like jumbo digital pixels. But just as Rhode reaches for a higher realm of metaphysics, he is also drawn to the low: to the material, humble, commonplace object. Narain is perched on a car tire to create the suggestion of being adrift at sea on a tiny lifeboat. And Rhode is quick to note another layer to the image, given the realities of the surrounding community. “We are so far inland,” he says, “and almost none of my crew had actually seen the sea.”

Robin Rhode, Inverted Cycle, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Robin Rhode, Inverted Cycle, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

If these works offer an imaginative escape, or metaphysical transcendence, from the temporal particularities of life in Newclare, as well as the broader chaos of human societies around the world, their very existence lays testament to the community’s complex social fabric. Each work is the product of up to 16 people following the artist’s drawing and painting instructions, and takes 48 hours or so to complete. Rhode’s soldiers, as he calls them—he likens himself to a general, with six lieutenants—sleep under the paintings to protect them against vandalism during their fleeting life-span. The compositions are painted over within 24 hours of completion.

The impermanence of his works gestures not only at the existential conditions faced by Rhode’s crew, but also at the more universal experience of time. “I’ll create the monument, but I’ll tear the monument down as well,” the artist says. “The works exist for a short moment of time, related to the notion of life and death.”

Robin Rhode, Black Friday - 1 Billion, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Robin Rhode, Black Friday - 1 Billion, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Though Rhode has now quit the wall, and has for many years lived in Berlin—returning to South Africa regularly for art projects—he feels emotionally committed to the community of Newclare, and to empowering its inhabitants. He also feels an emotional bond to the particular surface he has made his canvas for so many years, and to its symbolism, which speaks as much to the possibility of transformation as it does to collapse. “It’s a broken wall, in a broken world,” he says. “That means ideas and narratives are seeping through.”

Tess Thackara is Artsy’s Senior Editor.