Richanda Rhodenby Hadley Suter
SOLOWAY GALLERY | AUGUST 12 – SEPTEMBER 23
Another day, another famous artist’s wife discovered to have been an artist herself. This time it’s Richanda Rhoden, a Native American painter mostly known for being married to the sculptor John Rhoden. Though she painted every day until her death—just shy of her 100th birthday—in December 2016, this exhibition at Soloway Gallery in Williamsburg is the first exhibition of Rhoden’s work.
The selected paintings—all untitled, all undated, most in oil—might well have been lost if it weren’t for curator Emily Weiner, who was able to salvage them from the Rhodens’ heirless estate (the couple had no children and each listed the other as beneficiary on their joint will). By Weiner’s estimate, the paintings on display were completed between the ’50s and ’80s. Though they reference the lexicon of all those decades, especially that of abstract impressionism, they also manage to feel contemporary.
The largest and most recently made painting on display, Untitled (Figures in Pink), (c.1985) centers around a dormant female face resembling the artist’s own: a wide forehead, high cheekbones, a cascade of silken hair. The figure’s eyes and lips are closed and doubled as if split by diplopia—an invitation to the spectator to pause, squint, and look closer. The festive pink, yellow, and turquoise appear to be a chromatic red herring, as the dreamscape turns out to mired in anguish, and dotted with hints of an imminent threat. The face is in fact surrounded by what look like renderings of the Indonesian tribal masks Rhoden collected throughout her travels with John. Three of these masks are on display across from the painting; like hungry monsters they stare at the canvas, their eyes bulging and their mouths hanging open. The mask-like faces in the painting are echoed in abstracted inchoate forms that peek out from their various layers of paint, like demons from different circles of Dante’s Inferno. On either side of the painting are outsized hands—the one on the left attached to a muscled arm and a glowering skull in profile; the one on the right even larger, its curved fingers equipped with green claws aimed towards the face in the center.
Next to the canvas, parallel to the central face’s closed eyes, a wax sculpture John Rhoden made of Richanda sits on a shelf. Here, Rhoden appears as a goddess of serenity. The sculpture’s eyes are open, her lips upturned in a tranquil smile. It’s as if two iterations of the artist are confronting each: the husband’s view of his wife—all glowing cheekbones and wide-eyed grace—versus the artist’s gaze upon herself—tormented, chaotic, and intentionally shutting out the world. Two carved Indonesian chairs—also relics from the Rhodens’ travels—sit on either side of the painting; here it gives the impression that the guardians of the dreamscape have abandoned their posts.
In another large-scale painting, Takoet Poeles (Balinese), (c. 1950 – 65) a chorus of faces appear, several of which are again possible alter egos of Rhoden. This time they are surrounded by thick-toothed masks, bald eagle-like demonic heads, and a heap of disjoined features. The work evokes not so much a nightmare as a psychedelic refracted mirror, with the three female figures in the center trisecting Richanda’s likeness. The trio recalls the scene in Elena Ferrante’s 2002 novel, The Days of Abandonment, where the protagonist Olga looks at herself in a three-way mirror and is shocked by the alienation of the reflections given by its side-panels: “The front mirror told me that I was Olga [...] my two profiles warned me that it was not so. 1
A modified version of this sentence could have been pronounced by the artist’s parents. Rhoden was born Richanda Phillips to a mother and father who met at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, one of the boarding schools serving the assimilation project of the late 19th and early 20th century that aimed to “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Rhoden grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, where her father served as mayor and became the first Native American judge in the state. After losing her first husband to World War II, she left for New York to pursue a Masters in Asian Art History at Columbia. It was there that she met John, who was completing his Masters in the School of Painting and Sculpture.
Native American imagery informs much the exhibition. In Untitled (Bear), (c. 1970) a towering bear embraces a human form obscured by a heart shape, in which another face is hidden. For the Cherokees, bears were often portrayed as violent enemies; for the Menominee, they were the ancestors from whom we descended. Rhoden’s mother hailed from the former tribe, her father from the latter. In the painting, this mythic ambiguity glows through the half blue, half burgundy canvas; it’s unclear if the bear intends to protect the human it holds or devour it.
Untitled (Mountain) (c.1970) is awash in the cool damp palette of the Pacific Northwest; a moon’s glow is obscured by the pallor of night clouds, which hang a veil of fog over what is either a mountain or the thatched roof of a Native American sweat lodge. Inside the doorway appears a sort of chalice, on top of which a Cheshire-like face can be discerned. This eerie apparition might be rooted in the logic of the landscape outside the lodge, which is flecked with shapes approximating the yellow-flecked stalks of purple sage—the mild hallucinogen that grows wild across the region of Rhoden’s youth and that is known for its ceremonial and medicinal use in Native tribes.
Apart from her Native American roots, the trippy idiom of Rhoden’s œuvre also makes reference to more canonical 20th-century figures. Her most abstract work in the exhibition is a haphazard reticulation of purple and burgundy strokes fencing an array of softer, rounder shapes beneath; it’s a work dated to the ’60s that fits easily into to the ecosystem of the New York School. A canvas dated circa 1950 – 1965 hums with the energy and color palette of a Chagall circus, but through a more surrealist composition. It features a carnivalesque goblin who lolls his tongue hungrily over a sleeping woman, whose face, again, hints at rather than declares itself as auto-portraiture. “There is no technological means of reproduction that [...] has managed to surpass the mirror and the dream,” Ferrante writes in the same passage quoted above. Rhoden’s response to the burden of (self-)representation seems to have been to aim for a painting technique that combined the two.
Rhoden was known throughout her Brooklyn Heights neighborhood for founding the Cranberry Street Fair and for hosting elaborate parties in her art-filled home—previously a livery stable and a parking garage. All the while, and throughout the commercial success of her husband (according to Weiner, who was her neighbor) Rhoden saw herself primarily as an artist. Perhaps now these two gazes—the public’s and her own—can converge.
- Ferrante, Elena. The Days of Abandonment. Trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2005. p. 123.
Hadley Suter is a New York-based writer and a Lecturer in French at Barnard College.