Robin Rhode: Art at Street-Level

While "street art" might have a pejorative sting in fine art circles, it's an apt descriptor for South African artist Robin Rhode's work. And not simply because his art—often institutional critiques of museums and government offices—seems more at home outdoors than in the dim halls of officialdom, or because his work arises from the culture of pickup basketball, breakdancing, and graffiti. Rhode, quite literally, makes art on the street. On asphalt playgrounds, concrete sidewalks, and brick walls, this 20-something South African uses little more than a stub of chalk or charcoal to create performances that challenge the boundary between two dimensions and three—and confront the embedded histories and indelible memories that reside in architecture.

His works, public actions often exhibited as photographic series or wall drawings, are comic yet deadly serious: in Getaway, Rhode acts out an escape from The Slave Lodge, a Cape Town building that once housed slaves for the Dutch East India Company. With cartoonish charcoal-drawn motion lines trailing after him, Rhode high-tails it away from the site, stopping between stumbles to strike heroic runaway poses. In the deceptively simple Park Bench, he sketches a precariously angled bench on a white wall then struggles, unsuccessfully, to take a seat. The specificity of the site—the House of Parliament in Cape Town—gives the work its gravity: during apartheid, segregation of public life was legislated all the way down to public benches labeled "Coloured." In Leak, Rhode takes aim at the sanctity of the art museum. Riffing on Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, an upturned store-bought urinal signed with the alias R. Mutt, Rhode drew a urinal on a wall in the South African National Gallery and proceeded to "fill" it. In an apparent critique of whose art gets hung in the official halls of postcolonial South Africa, he signed the work R. Moet, the Afrikaans spelling of Duchamp's pseudonym. Taking a back-alley piss—the male act of marking territory—on the clean white walls of the museum sends a clear message to the art world: the museum, like the claimed turf of the graffiti writer, is ours.

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