Robin Rhode, The Geometry of Colour @Lehmann Maupin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 multi-panel color works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a series of four connected gallery spaces. All of the works consist of c-prints, ranging from 3 to 36 parts, made in 2016 or 2017. Individual panel sizes are either roughly 21×21, 22×29, or 23×29 inches, and all of the works are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For the better part of the past two decades, the South African artist Robin Rhode has been making his own unique brand of disarmingly approachable photographic series, their consistent accessibility due mostly to their many possible entry points.

For those interested in brash street art, Rhode’s works are iteratively painted on the cracked walls of Johannesburg, right out in the sunlight and open air, their forms often centered on playful physical trickery and visual illusions. For those more intrigued by the performance aspects of his picture making, his setups always include the interaction between the painted walls and a masked subject (perhaps the artist himself or an anonymous doppelganger), the dark figure moving like a dancer in stylized poses that actively respond to the changing imagery. For those with a social or political bent, Rhode’s works have long engaged with the social realities of post-apartheid South Africa, from the plights of poverty and crime to the realities of violence. And for those looking for conceptual angles, his images have thoughtfully probed the nature of time sliced seriality, building on the the stop motion legacy of Eadweard Muybridge and extending those ideas into ambitious additive frame-by-frame storytelling. With all these potential doors, viewers have plenty of options for finding their way into a conversation with the art.

Rhode’s newest works forcefully embrace color more than ever before, moving from the monochrome tones of chalk and charcoal that have dominated his previous works to the vibrancy of wall filling, eye popping pigments. And in contrast to his typical explorations of gesture and motion, they also make geometries their primary subject, with cubes, rectangles, and other hard edged forms becoming the central building blocks for his step-wise progressions.

The simplest work on view offers a nested trio of three line-drawn cubes in skin tone shades, but the depth and complexity of the various series on view here quickly ramp up from there. Enlarging pentagrams march upward in an angled cone (in a mathematical figure also known as the Lute of Pythagoras), colored circles spin in an overlapping clockwise rotation echoing the diagrams of color theory, and the dissembled pieces of a cut off pyramid (technically known as a frustrum) come together in an exploded diagram, and in each case, we are pulled along by the incremental additions, until we ultimately see the complete set.

Other works make the performative aspects of the accompanying figure(s) more prominent. In Paradise, a rainbow of triangles iteratively forms a shadowed hexagon, with the figure cutting out the forms with a pair of long bladed garden shears. In Joints, an interlocking corner joint gathers intricate pieces into a smooth finished form, the dark figure pushing and pulling the components with two round pink jars over its hands. And in Candle (Tanagram), the polygons from the creative children’s toy are formed into an improvised candle form, which is then “lit” by the flame-wielding figure.

One of the brightest works in the show, executed in saturated orange, is an homage to Carl Andre’s 1967 floor sculpture 8 Cuts. While Andre made his work from bricks, where the “cuts” were geometric forms left open in the arrangement, Rhode transfers the aesthetic to his favorite wall, the black rectangles and slits added incrementally across the series of 8 images. Seen together, the work exchanges the austerity of Minimalism for the energy of the streets, the accompanying body performing ninja poses with two slashing machetes.

Given his unique hybrid approach to art making and his repeated commitment to playfulness in his imagery, Rhode’s works straddle categories and are therefore underestimated. The brighter colors and more abstract subject matter of these new pictures erode some of the authentic grittiness his work has often embodied, but the durable originality of his approach remains. Even when his works feel a bit too cloyingly arranged, Rhode still stands apart, innovating on his own personal stage.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from €50000 to €135000, 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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