Like his career, Robin Rhode's first major solo exhibition in the U.S. - Catch Air at the Wexner Center for the Arts - starts on the street.
Just outside the center's entrance, passersby are met with "Car Theft," a video of a 2001 performance that sums up the South African artist's main methods. Rhode or a stand-in interacts with an object he's chalked onto a public wall, in this case a car he means to jack, and he utilizes a wire hanger and other tools to try to gain access before a real car alarm scares him off.
As Rhode explained in a symposium tied to the opening of Catch Air, organized by Wex senior curator Catharina Manchanda, he wasn't comfortable in the studio as an art student in Johannesburg. He worked better where he liked to be, among a street culture increasingly influenced by Americans, adopting a cheap, common material and presenting his work directly to an audience unschooled in art.
Their charming come-on of irreverent populism aside, Rhode's simple chalk lines carry serious metaphorical and art-historical heft. They also mark the point of liftoff for a multi-disciplinary form that's uniquely his own, where drawing, photography, theater and cinema blend smoothly into one another.
As a result, with just over a decade of work behind him, the 32-year-old is an estimable force in the international art world, the subject of profiles in W and the New York Times and, last January, an Art in America cover story. Catch Air presents photographic works made since 1998, along with an assortment of videos and two sculptural installations, including a work made for the Wex's lower lobby.
Initially inspired by a rite of passage at his high school in which younger kids would be forced to try to interact with objects drawn in chalk on the bathroom walls, Rhode first took chalk to public spaces as a political statement, but also as a means to establish a post-apartheid sense of self as a young man of mixed race.
"In 1994, colored people were very much on the fence ... absorbing influences from the outside, searching for identity," he said. "You're on this journey of self-discovery, and one of the reasons you create art is to test that."
Working initially with simple symbols of the unattainable, such as a bench in a segregated park or a bike in a poor neighborhood, he would draw them on walls or sidewalks and attempt to interact, while documenting the process with a still camera for storyboard-style presentation.
Witnessing the start of basketball's and hip-hop's infiltration of South African culture, Rhode widened his circle of two-dimensional desired objects to include a basketball hoop for a spectacular dunk shot in "He Got Game" and a turntable for scratching in "Wheel of Steel." Yet each work remained steeped in the associations and limitations of life in his homeland.
At the same time, Rhode has explored his place within an international context. Most notably, in a 2000 gallery show he boldly referenced Duchamp's iconic urinal by drawing his own and then actually using it.
Now living in Berlin, Rhode still travels to South Africa to work on the street, but Catch Air suggests a move beyond the inherent frustration of confronting a dimensional barrier.
Recent pieces such as "Brick Face" and "Promenade" reveal figures that have some control over what's drawn around them. In the sculptural installation "Impis," he freely imposes fragility onto the menacing forms of riot helmets by casting them in glass, as well as an element of genuine interaction by making them life-sized,
Rhode explained that in works such as "Promenade," he's raising questions about his own process. And at this stage in his relatively short career, the Wex has brought Rhode's work to town when these questions are still being raised by all - the artist and the established art community as well as the average viewer.
It feels like great timing, partly due to another, more tangible shift. For a commissioned work shown last week at Grand Central Terminal, the artist who started with chalk and bicycles he could never ride used a full-size, remote-controlled BMW for a paintbrush.