1 December 2007–24 February 2008, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
American naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) said, ‘I try to see beyond the range of sight’. Carol Rhodes’ small paintings attempt that expansion of vision. Portraying mysterious spaces, with some of the components of nature, but categorically far removed from nature itself, they create a quiet, whispering presence in the large, downstairs connecting rooms of the gallery.
Carol Rhodes works in Glasgow today, lived in Bengal as a child and was born in Edinburgh. A student of Glasgow School of Art in the early 1980s, her paintings have built slowly into a body of work and are now beginning to receive wider recognition; this retrospective is her first solo museum show. Thirty paintings sparsely fill four rooms, mostly one to a wall. Each being around 50cm x 47cm, their size belies their portentous properties and as the viewer travels from one unfamiliar aerial view to the next, disorientation creeps into the process, along with a loss of the very thing we need to stay grounded—gravity.
To describe these paintings as landscapes would be right and yet not quite accurate. While Rhodes’ disciplined technique—a careful process that maps outline against contrastingly instinctive brush lines—creates compositions that translate on the surface simply as landforms, forests, rivers and roads. But allow them more than a glance and there is an uneasy sense that something is going on in those empty places—Rhodes infuses her paint with traces of psychological turbulence and tension.
‘Aeroplane’, 1993, the earliest piece, is framed in the entrance hall doorway. An unmarked passenger jet, simplified to its barest lines, flies over a whiteout terrain. Oxygen seems absent from this painting. Remove the plane and a muted abstract ‘plane’ appears, cutting the verticle in half in the soft, earthy colours of St Ives. Rhodes leaves us wondering. Her paintings are polite, refined even, but nevertheless survey the modern world with a searching, eagle eye, opening the door to a dream. Hers or ours? Is it future or fantasy? Does she wilfully construct her views, or does she allow streams of consciousness to procure these unfamiliar destinations from post-Orwellian aspects of the millennium we now inhabit?
Some commentators have described Rhodes’ work as having ‘sinister’ qualities. Devoid of human and other animal life, (the rare sighting of ducks in ‘Caravan’, 1994, seem misplaced) or of vegetation save trees in unsettlingly ordered mono-cultural plantations, the scenes have a disturbing beauty that gently links to fantastical imaginings, science fiction and to a pre-computer time when handmade models were the backbone of B movies and ambitious railway sets.
Airports, factories and railway junctions—Rhodes’ subjects are unsentimental, chiselled from the core elements of these views and bring shape and colour to the fore—grand scale visions shrunk down to her preferred scale, a dimension that has remained constant over the 15 years these compositions were orchestrated. It is the shape of television, of computer screens, the 21st century windows to the world. Rhodes’ paintings pre-existed before Google Earth came into our homes, but they presciently offer a parallel vision and allow us to hold vast areas of land, godlike, in our hands, certainly in our heads.
For all the painterly abstractive emptiness, reminiscent of Graham Sutherland’s landscapes, Rhodes’ paintings open up fertile ground of the imagination: a corn circle style head is carved into a deep, dark forest, the colour of Constable; a far off container depot that looks like textile design, perhaps relating to her life in India; meaty, Baconesque areas of scored paint gouge her ‘Construction Site’, 2003. It is Rhodes’ distinctive interpretation, her attendance to the medium itself, which makes this work compulsive viewing.
Her most recent paintings take a step closer towards the detail of her viewpoint. She zooms in to suburban streets, not so much with photographic realism, but more with a model-maker’s eye. But in that increased, closer detail of street architecture, something is lost. Abstraction has been painted out of the picture. In paintings like ‘Town’, 2006, the vistas have been replaced by a usurping domestic scale. Both subject and the paint surface itself seems claustrophobic, offering a deliberate naivity which closes down the grand magic of the landscape works.
Alice Bain is editor of MAP