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Letter from LONDON

The idea of landscape today seems simple, an offering of nature to the trapped urbanite. Given our increasingly mediated lives and the fragile state of the planet, the need to be reminded of the natural world seems all the more pressing. Modern representations of nature in Western painting ultimately derive from the Impressionists, who were given the freedom, though the invention of the paint tube, to bring easel painting outdoors. But that is copying nature, whereas ancient Chinese painters got closer to it through contemplation. In London this month there have been two different examples of contemplating nature.

Carol Rhodes
Andrew Mummery Gallery, London
September 11 – October 10, 2009

Carol Rhodes, "Coal"(2008/9), Oil on board. 54 × 64 cm (21 1/4 × 25 1/4 ins)

Very simply, Carol Rhodes paints landscapes. Or so it would seem. For the past 15 years she has been creating topographic scenes from an aerial viewpoint. The resulting images are spare, nearly scraped down images of terrain, seemingly devoid of humanity. Her paintings have always possessed a painterly quality, and the landscapes have a diagrammatic or schematic sense about them; hinting thus at a quality of abstraction. Think Morandi but expansive. There is very seldom a view of the sky or a skyline, which helps to create a feeling of “airlessness” and perhaps desolation. With her painterly strokes and lustrous surfaces, the painterly process is very much emphasized in these panels. This is not to suggest that Rhodes is a painter involved with just the formal aspects of her practice; rather I believe that she is searching—through painting—for a sense of place. It is not quite a metaphysical space, as say a Rothko; perhaps it is close to that of Morandi’s. Time here seems to stand still.

There is also a sense of detachment and uprootedness in these imaginary “scenes.” They represent what critic Tom Lubbock describes as “edgelands”—a term coined by the environmental writer, Marion Shoard. These are places that sit on the border between the urban and rural, that are ideal locations for such “non-spaces” as offices, airports, mining pits, and malls. Her titles suggest as much: “Coal,” “Compound and Slope,” “Reservoir and Dam.” It is not quite an atmosphere of desolation as some have suggested, but it seems to me that Rhodes’ paintings depict nature that has been marked by humanity—tainted nature. Man is not represented, but his indelible mark on the earth is acknowledged in this imagery.

Although all her scenes are imagined, they are created with the aid of photographs, which probably enhances this sense of detachment. Like the Chinese painters before her, Rhodes’ results come about from the act of thinking. This show offers a more comprehensive view of her creative process than usual, in that along with the seven paintings, for the first time there is a group of five working drawings. These are very much like the cartoons of the Renaissance painters, in that they offer a well-worked diagram of the painting to come. However, unlike the Italian masters, these drawings possess a linear quality akin to Giacometti’s attempts to sculpt figure and space out of the white of paper. Likewise, Rhodes seems to be searching for the structure of her landscape. These linear drawings, blemishes and all, were not intended to be refined objects. They are preparatory studies, and as a result, they carry an edgy, searching quality.

In both drawing and painting, it would seem as if Rhodes is joining together parts of the earth and scraping away at its crusty surface. Although her paintings look nothing like his, there is something in them not unlike Lucian Freud: perhaps a condition of “raw” earth, but also an undecipherable sense of unease. The painter Merlin James has written of her painting in relation to the body, an intertwined trinity of earth, body, and painting: “the land is the body is the painting.” Yet, on the other hand, the paint handling itself seems to advocate a meditative calm. It is a “contained expressivity”.

Per Kirkeby
Tate Modern, London
June 17 - September 6, 2009

The senior Per Kirkeby offers a more expansive interpretation of contemplative reflection on nature. A retrospective at the Tate provides us with the range of the Dane’s oeuvre, from paintings large and small to drawings and bronze sculptures, and, even, his books of criticism, history, and poetry. Covering a career of some 40 years, it is probably his paintings for which he is best known. From the experimental, Sigmar Polke-esque work from the 1960s, which combined collaged Pop imagery with gestural painting as well as pattern painting with loose figuration, to the 80s, when his painting took a Neo-Expressionist stance, it feels as if Kirkeby has the traits of a cave painter.

 Prehistoric painters in the Dordogne used the cave wall’s natural relief patterns to provide the basis for their drawing of animals. The walls enabled the painter to draw out the “spirit” of the animal; likewise Kirkeby seems to be “feeling out” the structure of his drawing (with paint) through the gestural underpainting. The more recent large-scale paintings—which take up the last third of the show—have linear drawings of geological formations, floral shapes, or wood-grain over expressive patches of colour. Kirkeby seems to be digging out space in the picture plane with imagery that suggests dense forests or mountainsides. Given this subject matter, it should come as no surprise then that Per Kirkeby first trained as a geologist. Where Rhodes’ paintings encourage meditation, Kirkeby’s is an expansive and brash but earthy vision. 

About the Author

Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.