Custom-built cages for gourds to grow within. And Airbnb installations.
The tension between action and sculpture, between time and the body.
To drive a Zamboni.
Rob Rhee was a college freshman in need of a work-study job, and his first choice, driving a Zamboni on the campus ice rink, was reserved for hockey players.
He was not a hockey player, he was an aspiring writer, and they let aspiring writers monitor the wood and metal shop. So that's where "I fell ass-backward into the best graduate school in sculpture in the country," he still marvels. A teacher who turned out to be the celebrated sculptor Jessica Stockholder, then head of the sculpture department at Yale, told Rhee that he could sit in on the weekly critiques—"if you want, since you're always here messing around," as he remembers.
"In my work, everything happens in the touch," said the 34-year-old native New Yorker who now teaches at Cornish College of the Arts and lives in Seattle.
Take for instance Rhee's series Occupations of Uninhabited Space, ongoing since 2013. First, he custom-builds cages (see below) that he ships to amenable gourd farmers in rural Washington.
Over days and nights out in the fields, the gourds, with the cages the farmers have placed over them, grow up and through, and are shaped by, Rhee's premade forms.
In a gallery, after the sculptures have been harvested, to be shown as they were last year at Glass Box, the bars of the metal press into the gourds like fingers into flesh. It can almost look violent, a rude jolt placed on a genteel white sculpture pedestal. Or the metal might drape ornately around a gourd's neck, like jewelry.
The bodily sensation each piece elicits depends on how Rhee designed the cage—each cage is different, partly determined by type of gourd—as well as on elements that are uncontrollable, like the weather that year in those fields.
Each gourd sculpture is a body trying to express itself. In the process, the body is exerted upon by outside forces both planned and haphazard.
Rhee's sculptures allegorize living-bodyness. They're often about the tension between action and structure, a body in time and a body in space. The boundaries are often palpable and provocative. Once, he displayed sculptures alongside videos that mixed fact and fiction about how the sculptures were made.
At Out of Sight this past summer at King Street Station, he exhibited a piece made of walking canes standing on a short staircase made of cast concrete. The canes looked like they were delicately balanced. But a closer look revealed that the concrete had been cast to accommodate the irregular heights of the canes. Which half supported and created the other? Rhee titled the piece Invisible Hand, a play on laissez-faire economics. Rhee didn't want to be direct or political, but he offered, "I think sometimes we can talk about societal forces as if they're natural forces."
In 2015, Rhee brought together art and Airbnb. He offered an Eastlake condo on the short-term rentals site, with an art installation inside. Staying overnight, you cohabited with art rather than just visiting it glancingly. It was ingenious in that quiet Rhee way, where the work reveals itself in layers to not only the eyes or brain but also the body of the art-looker, who is also a dinner-eater, a tooth-brusher, a sleeper. Being in a body, said Rhee, who became a father this summer, "is a pretty awesome way of being in the world."