On ViewAlison Jacques Gallery
April 30 – May 29, 2021
While Glasgow School of Art’s Alexander Moffat was nurturing the careers of figurative painters like Steven Campbell, Ken Currie, and Peter Howson, and the city was battling to forge a reputation as a major arts hub outside of London’s suffocating shadow, another one of his students, Carol Rhodes, stopped painting upon graduation in 1982. She spent the ensuing years focusing on political and social causes and returned to painting in 1990. From then until her death in 2018, she quietly created an idiosyncratic body of work that is now, with new representation by Alison Jacques Gallery, gaining long overdue broader critical acclaim.
Comprising domestic-scale, oil-on-board paintings and pencil drawings, this tight, brief overview acts as an appetizer before her first posthumous survey scheduled to take place at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, as part of June’s Glasgow International Festival. Curiously, the first thing that you notice is that even from a short distance away the color palettes Rhodes employs make her paintings appear docile. Addressing this, the press release quotes Rhodes: “‘I like it bland’ she once said, though somewhat disingenuously.” Disingenuously, because it is only up close that you realize her paintings are anything but bland. Rhodes is busy with a fascinating kind of alchemy, toying with oppositions that root her paintings in your mind’s eye, remaining there long after most other painters would have been forgotten.
As you approach the first painting, Surface Mine (2009–11), your eye is drawn to areas of densely daubed dark brown paint flecked with grayish white on the center right of the composition. You are led to interpret that these areas are parcels of land covered by foliage or trees and that, according to the title, the empty area of grayish white that snakes around it is a mine, and therefore, the thin brisk brushstrokes spearing off to the edge of the composition must be roads or tracks. But quickly your attention refocuses on the sea of sweeping dark yellow horizontal brushstrokes that fill the rest of the work. Streaked with a plethora of different colors, they are fast, fluid, and feel entirely out of step with this landscape. It is then, with an “a-ha,” that you realize that Rhodes is testing how far representational painting can shift into the jaws of total abstraction and still be wrested away by an audience.
This occurs to varying degrees in each painting and, in a more rudimentary, less impactful way, in the svelte mark making of the drawings. But these are not real landscapes that Rhodes paints and draws. Born out of photographic sources, they are synthesized in her imagination, refined further through drawings, and then finally finished as paintings, by which time her carefully orchestrated palettes and economy in squeezing as much suggestible detail from the least amount of brushwork becomes the object lesson. What curator Moira Jeffrey has described as “not the melancholy of what has been lost but the imaginative potential of what survives.”
Everything is set up to allow this to become the main spectacle: from her choice to depict areas Marion Shoard calls “edgelands,” where the outermost reaches of human activity and nature meet, and what Rhodes called “hidden areas” and “left-over land,” to her preferred vantage point, high up in the air as if spied from a plane window or what a bird might see flying overhead. Rhodes allows for a level of egalitarian compression so that the land she paints is not seen geographically but in a flattened, painterly light, most acutely evidenced in the closest she gets to total abstraction, Road and Valley (1999).
Undoubtedly, Rhodes’s formula has resulted in lightning-in-a-bottle moments, River and Buildings (1996) being one. This is a slight variation: we are positioned akin to human height, looking at a pale green river lined by an off-white wall that she contorts so that together they cast a horizontal stripe across the work, sectioning it. Above and behind the wall, two nondescript low-rise residential blocks at angles play into the unnatural flattened perspective of the river and wall. But it is the inclusion of a completely white, diagonal building in front of them, partially hidden by the wall and operating like the white rhomboids in John Stezaker’s “Tabula Rasa” series, that steals focus. Along with the more human vantage point, this unusual building is the exhibition’s most overt invitation for narrative speculation. In River, Roads (2013), the dirty, neon-colored river and comical coiling of access roads and motorways immediately conjure descriptions from J. G. Ballard’s Crash, yet remain resolutely silent no matter how many lines of inquiry we pull at.
As a result, emotional connections are hard fought, although flickers of alienation, intrusive surveillance and voyeurism, and the cost of relentless socio-industrial development do quietly permeate throughout, largely due to conjecture. It is this stubborn confidence, whereby Rhodes’s paintings don’t have to—and won’t—give anything back to the audience, and the sense that they are unapologetic because they were created first and foremost to quell her personal curiosities, that makes them so refreshingly magnetic in the flesh.
But it seems not enough to leverage her oeuvre within today’s over-saturated and hyper-accelerated digital realms where bold, statement-announcing, and Instagramable works of art dictate the taste of younger audiences. Which gives rise to the pressing issue of how best to situate Rhodes within the canon? Whatever that answer may be, Carol Rhodes deserves to be better known.