Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Edgelands: The Paintings of Carol Rhodes

Carol Rhodes (Skira Editore)

Carol Rhodes, Airport, 1995. Oil on hard board, 42 x 48 cm. Tate
Carol Rhodes, Airport, 1995. Oil on hard board, 42 x 48 cm. Tate

Carol Rhodes depicts what have been called “edgelands,” the environmentalist Marion Shoard’s term for the kind of non-descript terrains given over to transit, storage, mineral extraction, reservoirs and landing strips. Landscapes never given back to nature, these are places defined by human exploitation rather than habitation. Rhodes is a “realist” in the sense of the acuteness of her politics and the unsentimental report of her gaze. But her compositions are also inventions, made up non-sites conjoining disparate details from the aerial photographs that are her source material.

Literally as well as metaphorically, she paints in no man’s land, an “edgeland” of categories that is at once documentary and fictional, idealized and anti-idealist. Despite the relentless quotidian drabness of the world she describes, her paintings are caprices of sorts, making her perhaps a latter-day Canaletto, one shot through with something of the ethos of Robert Smithson. At once delicate and diffident, composed and plain spoken, her paintings hover between the prosaic and the metaphysical.

Looking at a reproduction of Airport, 1995, one of two paintings by the artist in the Tate collection, there is a peculiar back and forth between empathetic, brushy, emotionally invested-in passages of scrubland or the delicately-insisted upon shadows of walkways, on the one hand, and the almost schematic monochrome of unusable lawns caught in the loops of runways and service roads and a uniformly dispatched stretch of tarmac, on the other, as if the distance and perhaps implied movement of the observation point has vision teetering between reduction and specificity.

A detail of a painting by Carol Rhodes reproduced in the book under review. (Construction Site, 2003)
A detail of a painting by Carol Rhodes reproduced in the book under review. (Construction Site, 2003)

Despite the composite, impersonal fictions that she generates, there is an oddly loving sense of the observed about these always handmade-feeling, modest sized, faux-plein-air oils on board. A better comparison than Canaletto, therefore, might be the 18th-century Welsh painter of Neapolitan backstreets, Thomas Jones. Like him, she delights in strange moments of tenderness and surprise in the relationships of form she uncovers, although where Jones homes in upon “pleasing states of decay” (in English painter John Piper’s felicitous phrase) Rhodes pulls back to the bland despondency of damage done on an industrial scale. Her bird’s eye perspective ought to be distant enough to reduce any details to near abstract alloverness, and yet there is often a dainty, toy like sense of the contained in the anonymous functional structures that populate her unpeopled vistas.

Born in Edinburgh in 1959 and raised in India where her parents were missionaries, Rhodes based herself in Glasgow. She was active in a burgeoning group of artists centered on Transmissions, the cooperative gallery of which she was a founder, and the Glasgow School of Art, where she taught for many years. Illness in the last several years has curtailed her output, and she was, in any event, a fastidious and notoriously slow producer, and yet, as Skira’s fulsome, handsomely produced monograph demonstrates, she is leaving the world a thoughtful, deeply original body of work, one that evolved over the course of a highly industrious career. In addition to a dialogue with the artist by her longstanding dealer, Andrew Mummery, who edited the volume, the book has essays by Moira Jeffrey, who places the oeuvre in art historical and political contexts, and Lynda Morris, who takes a biographical approach, considering the impact on the young artist of a screening at elementary school of a moon landing, for instance, and the social perspective engendered by her Indian childhood. The book includes a number of reproductions of preparatory cartoons, quite startling images in their own right that Rhodes has previously been reluctant to exhibit. All in all, this very welcome publication will enrich appreciation of a singularly remarkable artist.

Carol Rhodes. Published by Skira Editore (Lausanne, 2018). Edited by Andrew Mummery, with contributions by Carol Rhodes, Moira Jeffrey and Lynda Morris. 196pp. 116 color illustrations. ISBN 885723814. €41