Carol Rhodes paints landscapes in the sense that Giorgio Morandi painted bottles and Josef Albers painted squares. For such artists, landscapes, still lifes, portraits or geometrical shapes are more than genres; they are vehicles for meditation and thought. The American painter Gary Stephan, no stranger to the landscape format himself, once described Cézanne’s ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’ as ‘a sufficiently interesting shape’ upon which to hang a painting. Perhaps Rhodes’ choice of landscape settles into this space for consideration—but the question is, what sort of consideration? Or perhaps she is just shuffling bits of imagery around on which to hang a painting?
Like Morandi, Rhodes works slowly, though this is not apparent in the measured tempo of brushstroke, nor the ease with which the eye travels through her images. In truth these landscapes are not real places. Photographs merely provide the raw material from which she pieces together her work. Then she turns these fragments into a drawing, sometimes revising and adjusting to find the correct structure; other times just making a schematic sketch. In a practice similar to that of Alex Katz, she uses these drawings somewhat like renaissance cartoons, tracing the images onto her boards. In fact she exhibited a drawing for the first time in her last show at the Andrew Mummery Gallery in London.
In this regard her drawings are truly preparatory studies in the traditional sense. She says that this approach, like a jazz structure, allows her to focus on the painting and thus paint in a fresh way. From that point on, she builds up her painting slowly. Often the process involves the ebb and flow of scraping down her MDF boards if the image is developing inappropriately. This meticulous method, curiously enough, sounds similar to that of Tomma Abts, the German-born abstract painter who is a current Turner Prize nominee. Yet despite all this preparation, after the drawing, she says, ‘the rest is a surprise’.
Rhodes’ landscapes are nearly all seen from a bird’s-eye view and almost all possess a hazy atmosphere. They are physically small objects, and spare. Their descriptiveness somehow escapes the literal. In some, red hilly terrain looks like slices of red cabbage or marbled meat, joined to strangely pot-holed moonscapes. In a more recent painting, a grouping of trees resembles dark purple Brussels sprouts. Dips in hills seem to invert themselves, as if trying to flatten out the picture plane, while rivers and roads create designs, thus breaking up the painting’s singularity. There never seems to be a horizon line and thus there is no sky. There are no figures, and what few buildings there are seem strangely deserted; a forlorn sense of desolation pervades her imagery.
These are paintings based on an idea, though Rhodes never discloses or articulates the specifics of each thought. She has said that she likes things to be ‘on the edge—the actual landscapes that [she likes] are … neither one thing nor the other’. Does ‘neither one thing nor another’ imply neither painting nor image? Neither landscape nor place? Her paintings are certainly that, on the edge: on the edge of abstraction and representation, painterliness and realism, image and object.
Rhodes is also on the edge of being a picture-maker; that is, not a creator of ‘paintings’ but of ‘images’. Her ‘views’ provide strange, almost topographical scenes that seem both familiar and alien. No doubt working from photography accentuates this detachment, but the atmosphere and light seems entirely certain.
The British notion of the ‘picturesque’—that 18th-century concept linked to William Gilpin, brings up a certain notion of polite gentry and, worse still, polite painting, which Rhodes’ work is most certainly not. Ruskin’s idea that ‘ruggedness’ is a key component to the picturesque—a middle point between beauty and the sublime —fits better with Rhodes’ idea of the image on the edge. The sheer languor of her pictures, combined with her very even and subtle paint-handling and restrained chroma, creates a feeling, or more accurately a longing, for the sublime. One could compare her light and maybe even her measured surface to that of Rothko, though Rhodes is not an epic painter, and her paintings don’t aspire to that sort of grandeur. It is just this limit that her work drives at, an object of longing.
Based in Glasgow but raised in Calcutta, Rhodes returned to Scotland in her early teens. Would that have given her a different perspective, another understanding of space? Or at least how it unfolds on a flat surface? She has said that the flat topography, seaside Victorian architecture and flat-roofed, low-level buildings in her paintings are like the landscapes found in the coastal area of Bengal where she grew up. Although nostalgia and memory, by her own admission, play a part in the selection of imagery, they are not the main point. ‘You put childhood behind you,’ she once remarked, ‘but because mine was linked with a country it felt like I could always go back. I’ve got quite complex feelings about it.’ Maybe this is a way of returning, not in the flesh but in the abstract.
From the height of her viewpoints, the ‘design’ of the land becomes evident and certainly accentuates the diagrammatic or schematic. She is interested in a certain ‘pattern of composition’. This, combined with ideas of non-hierarchical compositions such as those of Indian miniatures, points to a certain abstraction of pictorial structure. Still, these unpeopled landscapes also seem pervaded by humanity. Signs of life, of urbanisation (roads, houses) and industrialisation (factories, mines), constantly dot her landscape: culture’s mark on nature as well as nature’s grandeur over culture. It is as if the memory of humanity is being etched slowly on the earth.
Of late she has become interested in specific times of day, which dictates the light in her paintings. Some have compared her use of light to that of the impressionists. But where her earlier work may have had a more abstract sense of place, the idea of time may be giving the work another dimension. In the mid-nineties, Rhodes’ paintings included large buildings, but these have given way to more desolate landscapes. In both groups there was a feeling of abandonment, but now Victorian architecture is appearing in her iconography and—combined with the specific light—gives her painting a stronger sense of place. One 2005 painting, ‘Town’, has a lower point of view. It is also her first of portrait of a town, albeit an imaginary one. Perhaps as time has passed, some part of Scotland has crept into her consciousness; her sense of place has become more specific and localised. The alien, unfamiliar feel of Rhodes’ earlier landscapes is beginning to assume a more localised sensation.
Rhodes’ paintings bring to mind those of other painters of small things: Chardin or Morandi, and in the abstract tradition, Myron Stout or Thomas Nozkowski. There are no ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’s nor little bottles to be found here—that is, no signature objects—but there is a signature hand or touch. Unlike Cézanne, Rhodes neither seems to be struggling towards a replication of seeing nor questioning the ontological nature of painting. But there is a highly personal interiority to her work. Perhaps because of its quiet and intimate nature, it has a deathly still, airless, quiet intensity. From there, it is the obdurate quality of their being that comes forth. It may be neither here nor there, but always Rhodes finds a place to be.
A large untitled painting, 2005, exhibited at the Tate Triennial earlier this year, depicted a young woman, sitting alone, dwarfed by the height of the room she’s in. There’s an absent look on her face as she indolently picks at the plate of food in front of her. Apparently she’s in a restaurant booth, although it’s odd that the white or white-clothed table in front of her extends all the way to the marble walls on either side of it, so that there appears to be no way in or out. Likewise, the wood-tiled wall behind her seems to meet the walls and tabletop with no space between, so that although the woman is depicted with full three dimensionality—not modernist flatness —and she casts a shadow on the wall as if there were some space between it and her, the dominant perspectival structure of the painting means that there is really no space in it for her, giving the work a subtle tinge of the surreal. Above her head on the wall behind her hangs a picture of another woman, the scale of the woman in the picture-within-the-picture being much larger than her own. It is a cartoon, rather refined in style, of a woman with her bare bottom in the air, masturbating. The speech bubbles that convey her conversation with an off-scene interlocutor are in Flemish.
One is almost of necessity impelled to interpret this incongruous scene. The initial effect is comical, yet it’s treated in such a deadpan manner that the humour is elusive. It’s tempting to see the contrast between the banal reality of the woman eating and the sexy fantasy floating above her head as a critical commentary on the contrast between our culture’s obsessive fascination with female sexuality and the more mundane and unsatisfying nature of many women’s lives, but one could just as easily imagine the erotic cartoon as something like a ‘thought bubble’ for the woman below it, showing the steamy daydream with which she occupies her boredom.
The dry, journalistic style with which Lucy McKenzie has depicted this scene leaves all conclusions to the viewer. The artist is neither carried away like the masturbating girl nor apathetic like the diner, though sufficiently interested in both states to make note of them.
This untitled painting may not be typical of McKenzie’s work—in fact, there’s no such thing as a typical McKenzie painting—but its way of being at once attention-grabbing and self-protective, provoking and then denying a desire to know the artist’s mind, is standard operating procedure. Although she’s not yet 30 years old, it already feels like McKenzie is a veteran of the international art scene.
She seems to have had a feeling for how to play the game right from the beginning—since 2000, when she first began to draw international attention with her participation in the Beck’s Futures exhibition and her one-person show Decembrism at Cabinet, London. I mean that in the best sense: how to navigate the system without becoming its creature, following her own idiosyncratic interests without becoming an advertisement for herself; having an effect without giving herself away, without allowing herself to be too easily understood and therefore pigeonholed. There is a refreshing ingenuousness to McKenzie’s view that ‘ultimately it is worth trying to turn the art world into somewhere you would want it to be rather than submitting to an existing idea of its limitations’.
Already back then in 2000 her work ran a wide gamut—as it’s continued to do since—both stylistically and in terms of subject matter. Some of her works nearly qualified as photo-realism; some were expressionist in appearance (albeit redolent of the self-parodic expressionism of certain works by Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen); others might be called abstract; still others appropriated the style of cartoons, and subject matter touching on sports, music, sex and of course art.
Her work was and remains full of references to the art of the past, from the art nouveau of Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Russian suprematism. But for all that, her project usually manages to steer just clear of the hermeticism it continually flirts with —though of course not everyone will agree; a reviewer for the New York Times complained of a ‘scattershot enterprise’ whose programme ‘the uninitiated viewer would be hard pressed to discover’.
Of course, a truly uninitiated viewer would be equally hard pressed to fathom the intentions behind nearly any work of contemporary art, however obvious these may appear to be to those already at home with them. ‘Uninitiated perception,’ as Pierre Bourdieu put it, ‘is mutilated perception.’
But with McKenzie’s work, the expectations are altered. Even those of us who for whom contemporary art has become second nature may feel that we need to puzzle something out, and the reason is that she treats art not so much as a form of culture, but rather as a set of subcultures. Thus, Michael Archer, observing the image sources for McKenzie’s first show, found himself bemused as to ‘what interest … someone who is only now in her early twenties could have in the ’eighties electro-pop bands Depeche Mode and Erasure, and why would she concern herself with the Moscow and LA Olympics of 1980 and ’84, events she can hardly have been aware of at the time?’
McKenzie’s choices must seem to have been made with a truly Duchampian disinterest: just as, for Duchamp, a comb or a bottle rack is as worthy of aesthetic investment as any other quotidian object, for McKenzie, one slick eighties synth-pop band is as fascinating as another. The point in either case is precisely to find this edge of indifference. An initial take on Decemberism might have suggested it would be difficult to enter into the spirit of the work unless one could empathise with the fandom evoked by the pop idols of yesteryear, or the athletic exertions of Olga Korbut. But in fact, a certain diffidence toward the ideological content of such icons may have been more to the point. All the more puzzling then, that—in contrast to artists like Kippenberger or Oehlen—who might seem to have been among her influences—there is a palpable earnestness to McKenzie’s handling of her imagery and her pictorial means: no disdain, no impulse toward satire.
Likewise, there is rarely anything particularly trendy or topical about McKenzie’s subjects or the various styles she uses to depict them, but neither are they exotic or recherché. The title of McKenzie’s first show remains telling. It evokes the Decembrists, a group of Russian aristocrats who unsuccessfully revolted against the Czar in December 1825—but their motivating ideals are rarely referred to as Decembrism. And while this conspiracy may be seen by historians as an attempted revolution that happened too early (in view of the successful revolution that occurred nearly a century later in October 1917) the label also seems to signify instead something that’s come too late, after the moment of ripeness.
But whether evoking the December that was too early or the December that was too late, there is always a certain sense of untimeliness or anachronism in the air with McKenzie—but little nostalgia. This was still to be seen in her drawing exhibition SMERSH at Metro Pictures in New York last year, where works in the style of Hergé’s Tintin comics mingled with others that seemed to reference De Stijl. The temporal and geographical range for both sources is roughly the same—northern Europe between the world wars—but there doesn’t seem to be any point being made about, say, the relation between avantgarde and popular arts. Instead, McKenzie seems simply to want to redeploy well-known conventions in unaccustomed ways and contexts, to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. What unifies her oeuvre is neither a style nor a subject, but precisely this disquieting gap between the two, the anachronism of styles and subjects that always seem to meet at the wrong moment.
Barry Schwabsky is an art critic living in London