On ViewLehmann Maupin
Extrapolating from American poet Robert Frost’s iconic reflection “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” we see in Power Wall both the brute reality of the wall and its much-loved qualities. Something in the work of both Robin Rhode and Nari Ward invites us to see the wall as so many things: barrier, writing surface, canvas, community center, basketball court, dance floor, and even decorative backdrop. Multiple manifestations of this structure are present in Rhode and Ward’s joint presentation at Lehmann Maupin Hong Kong.
Both artists allude to the power of sport as a symbol of talent, play, financial opportunity, and as a means of uniting and activating people. While their styles could not be more dissimilar, their concerns connect. Rhode, who is South African, travels widely and brings his assistants into the moment, leading them through precise, geometric narrative sequencing. Through drawing, they connect with the wall, the artist, and with one another by means of materials, subject matter, and performance. Rhode uses low-end materials like soap, charcoal, and chalk, as well as more sophisticated media, such as film animation and stop-action video to tell his narratives. As Rhode told Art21, “We use humor as a mode of survival—and we use play as a means to destabilize various dominant structures.”
Ward brings to bear the force of accumulation and symbolism in his productions. His uncompromising raised fist in Power Wall - Power People (2019), composed of primary-colored shoelaces puncturing a wall is forthright, graphic, and unnuanced. The fist is a symbol of solidarity and the laces stand in for the idea of community through sport, the lure of consumerism through gear, and perhaps freedom to escape. The Jamaican-born artist, who lives in Brooklyn, characteristically uses cultural markers, such as sneaker laces, as active mediums. They are at once tools and describers, form and content. Unlike Rhodes’s controlled graphic style, Ward’s is gestural with hanging, tangled laces seeming to congregate of their own volition.
Ward and Rhode both address social justice and connectivity through art and design, and both engage in linguistic play with punning titles (Ward’s Sole Revel and Knot Endings and Rhode’s Four Plays and The Point of Vanishing) along with visual play, working with recognizable symbols. Rhode, for example, uses paper clips as a readymade expressive element—an infinity symbol, and an obvious reference to working, writing, and connecting—in S (2014), a six-part C-print installation, in which a real man is photographed waving sheets of white paper as if on a runway giving directions to the clips to align themselves in the form of the letter S.
In his series of 12 photos, titled Four Plays (2012–13), Rhode depicts geometric sequencing in a series of moves drawn from a basketball coach’s handbook bringing to bear rules, discipline, and action. And it’s there on the wall, recording time and history, which brings us to the ominous idea of “the writing on the wall”—warning perhaps, of a dystopian future.
More to the point, the idea of a solid wall is almost a nostalgic one. Especially as we are growing accustomed to reckoning with virtual walls, where form and history are more likely to disappear than to crumble.