The first thing you notice about Carol Rhodes’ work is not what she paints, but where she paints from. The overwhelming majority of pieces in this show, a career survey that gathers together paintings from the past 15 years of Rhodes’ practice, are painted from an impossibly vertiginous veiwpoint. There are few horizon lines to be found in these landscapes, and they are almost always presented from an awkwardly steep angle, prompting a queasy, dizzying sensation close to vertigo or air-sickness.
And then there’s Rhodes’ taste for the mundane. The world that she creates, combining elements from aerial photographs to craft realistic, but never quite real scenes, is free of glorious natural formations, glamorous urban architecture or the twee pleasures of a rural village. Instead, Rhodes turns her eyes toward the unprepossesing margins, the factories and outbuildings and minor airports that populate those unnamed spaces beyond the suburbs, the not-quite-countryside places where buildings rise up as and when they are needed, with little planning and no high-falutin’ architects bent on making a statement.
This combination of a helicopter’s eye view and dull architecture and infrastructure has one immediate effect: it is impossible to stand before one of Rhodes’ small paintings without seeking to populate them. Who works in this factory? Who lives on that barren moor? Who on earth would spend an idle afternoon at this picnic area? And, most of all, why are they being watched, silently, from above?
Rhodes is careful not to provide any answers. A human figure never appears to offer a clue to the purpose of a given structure or environment, and works carry the lightest of titles, simply identifying a key element, or two, of the composition, a trick that only serves to heighten the viewer’s curiosity before shrugging it off. It might, in fact, be wise to ignore the temptation to pad out Rhodes’ paintings with an invented backstory. There are hints, certainly, that something is not quite right in these places, and that we might not like the answers to the questions these works quietly insist that we ask.
Not everything is uncanny in Rhodes’ world. There is something pleasingly non-committal in her brushwork, particularly in those expanses of emptiness that are a constant in her work, as if none of these paintings will ever be truly finished, just as the scenes surveyed are haphazard, higgeldy-piggeldy, unplanned and incomplete. These marks are not careless - Rhodes is a distinctly deliberate painter, one who produces just a few works each year - and serve to emphasise that these are paintings, a quiet reminder that viewers should not get too caught up in the unusual viewpoint and the scenes shown, but keep a close eye on the skew-whiff compositions, flat and muted palette and carefully marked surfaces that Rhodes lays out before them. There is also something almost tender about the way Rhodes puts down paint, as if she has found herself growing deeply fond of the rather unlovely places she amalgamates, not going so far as to celebrate the scenes surveyed, but according them a level of respect, and passing that respect on to the viewer.
This show will not, I imagine, have viewers flocking to the edges of cities and featureless moors, filled with a newfound affection for drinking in landscapes that inspire not awe but uneasy boredom. It does, though, offer a challenge to preconceived notions about the places we pass by or through with blinkers on. It might be a bit of a stretch to dub Rhodes the Ballard of the brownfield site, but just as that writer thrills to the ultramodernity of motorways and the sexual possibilities of multi-story car parks, so this painter offers a curiously warm reappraisal of urban outskirts and unedifying edifices, for all that she seems keen to point out and heighten the essential oddness and discomfort to be found in such non-places.
The most satisfying aspect of what is, arguably, an overdue survey of one of Scotland’s best painters, is the realisation that Rhodes’ practice, though it is tightly focussed and returns again and again to the same themes and concerns, is broad and deep, with much more to offer than one might expect from a painter who has settled so firmly on a style and subject. There is, too, a sense that that Rhodes might just be on the cusp of something new. The latest works on show see her falling to the earth, so to speak, and preparing to hit the ground running, exchanging the high altitude overviews for a much closer look. Perhaps, in some future exhibition, covering the next fifteen years, we will find Rhodes stepping inside the structures she has thus far examined on high, revealing some of their mysteries, or, better yet, providing more unsettling ambiguities. An unlikely prospect, maybe, but a tempting one.
This review was first published in The Herald on December 28th, 2007.