Rhythm, Drawing & Painting: An Interview with Robin Rhode

By Jennifer Sauer - Friday, January 26, 2018
Rhythm, Drawing & Painting: An Interview with Robin Rhode

“I see myself as a DJ alchemist, mixing the beats of Western modernity, youth culture, South Africa and philosophy,” Robin Rhode said as frankly as offhandedly in conversation.

Equal parts intellect and charisma, Robin Rhode effuses authenticity and an immersive brand of passion for his art - living, studying and painting the political and conceptual ideas that motivate his works.  “I see myself as a DJ alchemist, mixing the beats of Western modernity, youth culture, South Africa and philosophy,” he said as frankly as offhandedly in conversation.  “The music is in the rhythm, the rhythm is in the drawing and the drawing is in the painting.” His vision is emphatic and contagious, world-wise yet hopeful with young dreams and the seasoned drive and intent to make it happen. 

In his current exhibition, The Geometry of Colour, Rhode makes a case for the role of art in developing skepticism and spirituality, which he views as necessary for global unification. He has established his unique practice with a multimedia approach across drawing, performance, photography, video and music. Working initially in public, unsanctioned spaces, his practice has evolved more closely akin to the minimal wall drawings of Sol Lewitt; the 1970’s performance work of artists such as Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman; and earlier art historical references such as Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-motion photography.  Rhode emphasizes the reciprocal and collaborative nature of his art, saying: “The reactions and responses of the people on the street, the conditions pervading that particular process—that's part of the narrative." ArtDependence spoke with Rhode to understand the whole of the narrative - his engagement in his art, themes impelling his works and the intrinsic motivations of his process.  

ArtDependence: Your art began with an interest in graffiti but as a conceptual artist, your work is outside the bounds of traditional graffiti or street art.  You have said: “Initially I avoided having any hierarchical structure, or divisional approach, between the street and the gallery and museum space, whereby one was more important than the other. My intention was to reflect both.” How do you merge the contrasting aesthetics and sentiment of the street with that of galleries and museums?

Robin Rhode: I was inclined towards street art as a fine arts student. I saw it as a means to shift the informed, institutional, versed audience and engage them with the greater public, the other side of the community, through my process. I am really interested in urban art more broadly. My work is flexible, universal – it moves in and out of gallery walls and the white cube space.

 

ROBIN RHODE Black Friday - 1 Billion, 2016 (detail) c-print 4 parts, each: 23.07 x 28.58 inches 58.6 x 72.6 cm 48.11 x 59.13 inches (overall) 122.2 x 150.2 cm Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ROBIN RHODE Black Friday - 1 Billion, 2016 c-print 4 parts, each: 23.07 x 28.58 inches 58.6 x 72.6 cm 48.11 x 59.13 inches (overall) 122.2 x 150.2 cm Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ROBIN RHODE Inverted Cycle, 2016 c-print 8 parts, each: 23.07 x 28.58 inches 58.6 x 72.6 cm 48.03 x 120.08 inches (overall) 122 x 305 cm Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ROBIN RHODE Inverted Cycle, 2016 (detail) c-print 8 parts, each: 23.07 x 28.58 inches 58.6 x 72.6 cm 48.03 x 120.08 inches (overall) 122 x 305 cm Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

AD: Hip hop, skateboarding, sports and urbanity are all noted influences of yours. How are these references incorporated into your current body of work?

RR: To own our experiences, there are various cultural signs and elements of the mainstream landscape that we embrace and adapt. In an attempt to reclaim the street and urban experience, there is also a great deal of appropriation and assimilation. There is nuance in finding our own meanings for the symbols, reclaiming space and reimagining histories on both the individual and social levels.

AD: Your work is informed by the cultural spontaneity of South Africa, which is very different from the analytical character of Germany, where you currently reside. How has being in Berlin affected the art you conceive and its presentation?

RR: The change of environment has had an interesting impact on the oeuvre of my subconscious. In Germany, I have the distance to reflect and develop a consciousness before creating my work. I am able to prepare, to research more broadly, to have and digest new ideas, and to polish the visual language before I return to South Africa to execute my work. Being in Berlin has been very important because I am not as embedded in the realities of the South African community, so I see them differently and more clearly in certain ways.

 

ROBIN RHODE Under the Sun, 2017 c-print 36 parts, each: 19.69 x 19.69 inches 50 x 50 cm installed dimensions variable Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ROBIN RHODE Under the Sun, 2017 (detail) c-print 36 parts, each: 19.69 x 19.69 inches 50 x 50 cm installed dimensions variable Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ROBIN RHODE Under the Sun, 2017 (detail) c-print 36 parts, each: 19.69 x 19.69 inches 50 x 50 cm installed dimensions variable Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ROBIN RHODE Under the Sun, 2017 (detail) c-print 36 parts, each: 19.69 x 19.69 inches 50 x 50 cm installed dimensions variable Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

AD: The Geometry of Colour, your current exhibition employs geometric figures, space and color throughout the series. How do these devices inform the works and their messages?

RR: The body is a formal device that functions inside a geometric narrative. The shadow, silhouette and effects of gravity make the body a sculptural prop, and the work becomes a painterly narrative.

AD: The Geometry of Color also addresses the concept of global divisiveness with art offering a bridge between social and economic divisions. How do you conceive of the role of artist in this unification?

RR: A lot is expected of the artist as a social responsibility. I embrace a reflective position on global issues. Artists can be part of the dialogue and discourse, to manifest certain ideas and absorb and engage with the resultant content and emotions.

AD: Your work is often rooted in the biographical, dealing with memories that are transformed into objects. You have said of yourself and your art: “I discovered that to find my own language, I had to look within my lived experience.”  The spirit of the individual is an important theme for your art, such as the solo protagonist in many of your pieces. What defines the essence of personal and larger individualism in your art?

RR: A work may begin with a personal memory or experience but then I reinvent and integrate it. The generalized form allows the audience to project themselves onto that body. The single, personal memory becomes something that the broader public can access and relate to through the work. This gives the art greater understanding and representation within a wider social space.

ROBIN RHODE Lute of Pythagorus, 2017 c-print 6 parts, each: 27.56 x 20.47 inches (framed) 70 x 52 cm 89.76 x 44.88 inches (framed overall) 228 x 114 cm Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

 

ROBIN RHODE Lute of Pythagorus, 2017 (detail) c-print 6 parts, each: 27.56 x 20.47 inches (framed) 70 x 52 cm 89.76 x 44.88 inches (framed overall) 228 x 114 cm ​Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

AD: Your work appears playful on the surface but beneath its bright colors and humor, more serious subject matter is addressed: poverty, crime and violence within developing and postcolonial nations. How do you reconcile your light-handed style with this heavier topicality?

RR: I try to incorporate humor to reimagine and recreate the negative. Culturally in South Africa, the technique of storytelling and joking is a way of coping, escaping and forming a group identity that destabilizes dominant discourse. The organic nature of the playfulness is a way of challenging the environment and rearranging our experience with new codes, making it different and our own.

AD: You have said: “As artists, we must never forget that the most powerful ideas are the purest ideas. The purest ideas rely on the purest imagination, and children have the purest form of imagination. I am very youth-conscious with my work, because I am trying to search for that purity of imagination.” How does the infusion of youth culture into your work impact the purity of the art and message you present?  

RR: I definitely gravitate towards youth culture. When you are young, you are fearless because you have not developed your full level of consciousness. As you mature, you can rely too much on forethought and not enough on your instincts. In youth, freedom is not yet tainted by awareness and responsibility, and that naiveté can be your biggest strength. Freedom as an artist is very important. I think a lot about what it means to be free and how do I remain free in my art. Freedom comes from associating with the openness of youth culture: youthful perception, engagement, energy, validity.

AD: You and your team often revisit the walls where your work began, in a gang-controlled territory in Johannesburg, to return the resources and acknowledgement of your success to the areas and social concerns that spurned your ascent.  Why is it important to take the risk and pay forward the benefits of your achievement in this specific way?

RR: It is something I have had to reconcile. I could find other walls, in Berlin or elsewhere, but I always go back to one wall in particular. From an identity perspective, I went to school close to there, I am very familiar with the language and expressive nature of that community. I am part of that system and that wall. I had the privilege to elevate myself with family support for my art study but not everyone has that, so I feel especially appreciative for what I have been given... If I can create works in the conflict zone, this would be the greatest challenge and the place where my work could have the most impact. I have an emotional pull to that space - the kids there have worked with my team and me, this is a world I know so well. I believe that art can be rehabilitative to the community, offering a visual vocabulary that allows them to reject the chaos and find order within their environment. In that way, my work is always searching towards a greater universal spirituality.

Jennifer Sauer is a writer who holds an M.A. in Literary Arts from New York University. Her background includes writing and communications for diverse fields including the arts, charitable foundations and the financial sector. She lives in New York City with her husband and son.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Image of the Day

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Search

About ArtDependence

ArtDependence Magazine is an international magazine covering all spheres of contemporary art, as well as modern and classical art.

ArtDependence features the latest art news, highlighting interviews with today’s most influential artists, galleries, curators, collectors, fair directors and individuals at the axis of the arts.

The magazine also covers series of articles and reviews on critical art events, new publications and other foremost happenings in the art world.

If you would like to submit events or editorial content to ArtDependence Magazine, please feel free to reach the magazine via the contact page.