In the introduction to Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson makes a rare reference to visual art. Talking about Constable’s working oil-sketches, he implies that it’s in these studies rather than the painter’s finished works that we find the room for ‘poetry’ (or ‘ambiguity’, which for Empson was pretty much the same thing).
On display at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove are around thirty of Carol Rhodes’ working drawings, along with ten key paintings. See the World is the first posthumous survey of the artist’s work in the city where she was also an influential teacher. Her aerial views of urban peripheries, industrial sites and transitory no-mans-lands, have been the subject of growing critical attention over the last years. The working drawings, rarely shown in Rhodes’ lifetime, only make clearer her achievement as a painter.
Bone-like in their intricate criss-cross of bands and bumpy ovules, the drawings have a stark elegance. As graphic work they’re great and absorbing. But it’s in the ‘skin’ of the paint that bodily (and bodily-functional) associations really unfold. Peach-purple road networks become vascular, arterial, gastrointestinal; trees become clustered nerve-ends, blood vessels, clumps of hair, caviar (Roads, Buildings (Evening), 2013-14); or sprouts amid mash and gravy, as in a child’s plate of played-with food (Black River, 2005). It’s through nuances of painting that scale is continually made ambiguous (the way the ‘light’ rakes across buildings they could easily be tiny models in a diorama). Colour, texture, mark, all are highly specific: but specific in the various cases of mistaken identity for which they allow. The ‘poetry’ happens where handling, tone, touch, meet the composition, become the composition. In a reversal of Empson’s comments on Constable, it’s in finishing that Rhodes paradoxically drives toward ambiguity. An ambiguity which is strenuously cultivated, refined.
Ironies of material ‘cultivation’ and ‘refinement’ play themselves out at both pictorial and industrial levels. The arduous processes of construction and destruction involved in making the work—the drawings planned, pinned together, pulled apart, the paint carefully pushed around, picked-up and and deposited—rhyme with the heavy-handed human processes which shape or mark the landscape on a vastly larger scale. (This kind of witty interplay is continued in the hang: an early mature painting of a commercial passenger jet suspended above thick cloud (Aeroplane,1993) marks the ‘take-off’ at the show’s entrance.)
Displayed in a vitrine is a tantalising selection of Rhodes’ studio materials: photographs of nondescript car parks, cut-out drawings of buildings, small clay maquettes that reappear as mounds of indeterminate size, depth and identity/function in the paintings. A catalogue opened at the yellow-brick pyramid of George Stubbs’ Rubbing-Down House, Newmarket Heath (1764-65) recalls the eerie hump of Rock with Helipad (1998) at the opposite end of the gallery, reflecting a wider fascination for the latent surrealism in utilitarian structures, the formal potential in artlessly mundane ‘working’ landscapes. But despite the paintings’ abstraction—drifting off like the absent thoughts of a commuter—there’s always the pull of reality. The fact of the world reasserts itself. In their pictorial-topographical play (and their alternately sour-candy/creamy-dessert chromatics) they’re a little like Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of impossible Californian highways and hills but less overtly fantastical, less contrived. Rhodes remakes the world at only a slight (but significant) tilt from ours. These are places strangely familiar and familiarly strange. They’re also the subtler works of art, with a richer formal-thematic range.
In some ways it’s only a shallow jump from the drawings to the relatively ‘flat’ paintings. Rhodes gives herself a tiny amount of room for ‘surface’ (painting’s thin but crucial third-dimension) but maximises what she can get from it, just as she wrings everything she can from her ‘limited’ subject. Just as that subject is also partially ‘flatness’, the flatness of daily experience, augmented and intensified. Because it’s in nuances of painting and not drawing that we really feel the speed of a dual-carriageway through a shallow hill, the weight of a still grey reservoir plastered against breezy bleached grass, the melting of a dull shoreline into ocean, the familiar giving way to the un-known.
But then it’s startling how expressive the drawings can be. Many of them already have a distinct melancholy in the lonely scattering and hemmed-in huddling of their forms, in how the lines seem to reach out toward or slip apart from one another, agitate or vex, loop, converge or by-pass. Even in their barest preliminary stages, the compositions articulate notions of distance and connection, escape and entrapment, listlessness and enrapture, unique to Rhodes’ highly original body of work and peculiar to our human experience of the world.
Jamie Limond is an artist and writer based in Glasgow.
Carol Rhodes, See the World runs at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. 11 June–4 July as part of Glasgow International 2021