Robin Rhode, African Dream Root @Lehmann Maupin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area.

The show includes:

  • 1 c-print, 2022, sized roughly 48×64 inches, in an edition of 5
  • 6 sets of 2 c-prints, 2022, each panel roughly 31×40 inches, in an edition of 5
  • 2 sets of 3 c-prints, 2022, each panel roughly 22×28 inches, in an edition of 5
  • 1 set of 4 c-prints, 2022, each panel roughly 25×33 inches, in an edition of 5
  • 1 set of 8 c-prints, 2022, each panel roughly 19×25 inches, in an edition of 5

Non-photographic works on view include 5 sculptures and 2 wall paintings:

  • 1 wooden ship with charcoal wall drawing, 2022, 53×173 inches, unique
  • 2 glass fiber reinforced plastic and shells, 2022, 56x16x15 inches, unique
  • 1 feathers and bicycle, 2022, 45x86x34 inches
  • 1 glass fiber reinforced plastic, amethyst, and feathers, 2022, 53x71x50 inches, unique
  • 1 acrylic paint, 2023, 196×324 inches, in an edition of 3
  • 1 acrylic paint, 2023, 250×273 inches, in an edition of 3

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: The South African photographer Robin Rhode has long understood the potential storytelling power of the photographic sequence. For the past two decades, he has used urban walls (often in Johannesburg) as the setting for performative sets of images that pose anonymous silhouetted figures playfully interacting with the artist’s own wall paintings. The resulting works have successfully merged the rough energy of the streets with the conceptual rigor of carefully planned photography, creating his own signature aesthetic.

While Rhode’s last gallery show in New York (in 2018, reviewed here) was anchored in a sequential investigation of geometric shapes and structures, the new works in this show take more natural forms as their inspiration. Reaching back to the ancient traditions of rock painting, Rhode has generated a range of floral designs based on psychoactive botanicals, particularly those used by shamans to induce altered states of consciousness and spirituality.

Most of the works are presented as two image pairs, where the bold floral shape begins on the left (generally against a flat colored backdrop) and is then expanded on the right, adding layers of petals or color themes that seem to pulsate when viewed back and forth. Black figures then react to these changes with expressive dance-like poses and gestures, amplifying the sense of responding to a force that is growing and evolving right before our eyes. In “Khat”, figures dance underneath growing stalks, while works like “Dianthus”, “Buchu”, “Canna”, “Taraxum”, and the show’s namesake “African Dream Root” feature figures reacting with wonder to eye-catching blossoms (like mandalas), the cast shadows of the silhouetted arms and legs reaching, bending, and mimicking the floral forms.

These works continue Rhode’s artistic trajectory away from overtly political subjects, his visual cleverness making fewer comments on social and cultural realities than in his earlier efforts, opting instead for more fanciful and graphically decorative creations. In the largest work here (of eight panels), the “Aloe Ferox” begins as small green succulent and grows to extend its tendrils toward a figure holding two white egg-like orbs; as the leaves wave and grasp, the figure seems to draw energy from the plant, struggling to make the connection that will harness its power. In all of these floral works, reality has been altered by the plants, creating unexpected visuals and whimsically charged interactions.

Additional works in the main gallery wander into still other imaginative worlds, with origami cranes swimming in a progressive line and a feathered ostrich lady riding a bicycle in line with a gentle stair step. These ideas then extend further in the entry gallery, where a loose nautical theme ties together a celestial star (worshipped by a figure with long white horns), a three-masted ship sailing on rough black seas, and two figures made of clam shells trying to peer inside a growing gathering of windowless pink buildings. The narrative thread that links these scenes together is open-ended and opaque, perhaps referring to a diasporic history but offering the possibility of alternate interpretations.

As seen here, Rhode’s storyboard-like approach to photography remains unique, even as he continues to explore the constrained options inside the creative sandbox he has built for himself. Maybe it is these limits that actually keep the artistic juices flowing, forcing him to innovate within boundaries other photographers don’t have to contend with. Like Eadweard Muybridge’s stop motion sequences, Rhode’s works place time into a stutter step; and it is within these chains and progressions that he finds his own brand of magical realism.

Collector’s POV:  The photographic works in this show range in price from €50000 (for the single print) to €70000 (for the 8-panel work), based on size/number of panels. Rhode’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $6000 and $50000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Hatje Cantz (here). Hardcover (22.10 x 31.00 cm), 128 pages, with 90 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Siri Hustvedt. Graphic design by ... Read on.

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