What would you think if you walked into a gallery and saw children drawing all over the walls with crayons the same size as they are? In the case of South Africa-born, Berlin-based Robin Rhode’s new show at New York’s Lehmann Maupin Galleries, you would be witnessing the creation of the space’s latest two-gallery showcase of his new work.
Rhode's practice has often dealt with themes of urban youth culture, but this time Rhode is also going after a larger statement about the role of art in a society. At the gallery’s Chelsea location, an installation titled “Take Your Mind Off the Street” provides a rich dose of what has become his signature type of work, photographic series presented to tell a kind of stop motion narrative, in which the artist shows himself alongside the chalk outlines of everyday objects scrawled on urban walls. As your eye floats from image to image, a story is told, as Rhode erases and redraws shapes to create action. In one case we seem him dunking a chalk basketball into a chalk basketball hoop; in another he brushes out a chalk Afro he has drawn around his head using the oversized outline of a comb. At the center of the gallery, there’s also a sculptural component: Two giant drawing compasses which take on anthropomorphic characteristics, their “legs” positioned as if they were running down a street or a court.
The Chrystie street location is more novel for this artist. There, Rhode takes his longtime interest in disadvantaged populations to another level. For this space, he has transformed the gallery into a walk-in “coloring book” (as New York Magazine put it). About 50 first graders from a South Bronx elementary school were invited to the gallery to find the walls already decorated with the thick black outlines of sailboats, flowers, birds, and cars. Rhode provided the kids with giant oil crayons, then had them go to town. The results are joyously messy, as you'd predict — basic shapes filled in with primary colors, rarely staying inside the lines.
“Maybe as a kid I never had [the chance to take art classes],” Rhode said recently in a phone interview, reflecting on his choice of involving students in the show. “I wanted to, so I want to give back to kids who don't have the opportunity.”
At Chrystie street, all of the images are placed about a foot from the ground. In a practical sense, this is so the children could reach the pieces to color them in. But as an adult viewer, the need to squat down to look at each piece provides a possibly long-forgotten perspective, one that makes the space, which already has very high ceilings, seem physically much larger, and makes one remember what basic, simple pleasures and lessons can come from what was once the daily norm of play. In a way, the whole thing inserts viewers into the very whimsical, magical world that Rhode occupies himself in his own more signature photographic series.
At the Lower East Side location, the messy and juvenile scribbles on the walls are not what’s actually on display. What’s displayed on these highly coveted walls is the power of art as play, art as education — and that is a priceless work of “high art” that we maybe don't appreciate enough.