Some notes and citations
But, when we have discovered in language an exceptional power of absence and of denial, we are tempted to consider the very absence of language as part of its essence, and silence as the ultimate possibility of speech… But this silence is in no respect the opposite of language, its repudiation or its condemnation; on the contrary, it is taken for granted by words—it is their preconceived basis, their secret intention; more yet, it is the only condition on which speech is possible, if speech is the replacement of a presence by an absence and the pursuit, through presences ever more fragile, of an absence ever more all-sufficing.
Maurice Blanchot Mallarmé and Language, 1947
Kafka’s works protected themselves against the deadly aesthetic error of equating the philosophy that an author pumps into a work with its metaphysical substance. Were this so, the work of art would be stillborn; it would exhaust itself in what it says and would not unfold itself in time. To guard against this short-circuit, which jumps directly to the significance intended by the work, the first rule is: take everything literally; cover up nothing with concepts invoked from above. Kafka’s authority is textual. Only fidelity to the letter, not oriented understanding, can be of help. In an art that is constantly obscuring and revoking itself, every determinate statement counter balances the general proviso of indeterminateness. Kafka sought to sabotage this rule when he let it be announced at one point that messages from the castle must not be taken ‘literally’.
Theodore W. Adorno Notes on Kafka, 1953
If paintings don't succeed visually, they will fail philosophically. Art is an end in itself, rather than a reflection of reality. Art is a critique of instrumental reason. Paintings are radical because of what they are not what they try to say. With the advent of modernism the conflicts of history erupt into art for the first time. Paradox and fragmentation now rather than classic balance. Freud, and Marx both recognised that illusion was constitutive of our social existence, and not only an error of reasoning—they looked for material causes and effects. It is the concrete that is complex, in our everyday encounters, rather than firstly abstract ideas. The tangible and sensuous materiality, as well as the optical, makes painting a material consciousness.
The desire to make a painting is the starting point, painting is its own impetus. I choose to work within the medial constraints of paint and canvas; black paint and raw canvas. Matisse said, "Black is not only a colour but also a light." Kafka said," One must write into the dark." In Kafka's writing the prose surface is not complex or puzzling, it is this simplicity that is puzzling. Emotion and thought is form, and vis versa, not distinguishable. Tactility of colour, and the reserve of exposed canvas surface, are vital to my paintings—aspects that are also present in Matisse's paintings. Lines, drawn with tape and over painted black are removed to reveal the substrate of canvas. This is drawing as painting. Earliest painting, or drawing scratches in a cave wall (Vilém Flusser on gesture). Today, still scratching into, on, inscribing walls, as graffiti. Mondrian and his use of tape in his late paintings and both Miró and Picasso, later Hantaï, in their using raw canvas, all important to me. The blindness necessitated in my use of tape. Beckett in a letter to Nans Naumann, "I will all the same give you one clue: the need to be ill equipped."
The visceral is comprehended, but not possessed, there is a bodily connection. I am interested in paintings material facticity, both surface and actual depth, as an interrogation of two-dimensional pictoriality and the condition of painting.
Compositionally, the concept of the diagram provokes thought: "...the diagram is commonly understood as a drawing conveying information about something incorporeal. From the Greek diagramma, it means to mark out by lines, to draw – where dia is through, across, apart and graphein is to write. The concept of the diagram revamps hylemorphic theory – the push and pull between form and matter – as well as the relationship between content and expression, the connection between thought and image, and the difference between representation and non-representation." Jakub Zdebik. How does this relate to Kant's 'schema' which is also not an image in itself, but a tool, a process?
"...between poetry's temporal and spatial expanse—by insisting that poetry, scored and scanned upon a page, is fundamentally both architecture and noise." Jennifer Scappettonne on Amelia Rosselli. Also, Rosselli, "I tend toward the elimination of the I. The I is no longer the expressive centre, it is placed in the shadows or to the side." Subjectivity is in flux, split, plural in I/thou. Unstable.
Retaining both allurement and effacement in different ambiguities: figure/ground, emptiness/fullness, symmetry/dissymmetry, static/dynamic. Typically, a vertical and central section oscillates or vibrates adjacent to opposing diagonal lines. When this is blank it is then visually unstable in a different way; it moves back and forth between aporia and shape, a different cesura. Arriving and departing, concealment and unconcealment, the while in-between one movement. Uncertainty occurs in this lack of finality—dynamic instability is toward another kind of balance. The paintings are impure, paradoxical, sensuous and matter of fact, they contain randomness, muteness, silence. The means and process of painting are as important as composition to the finished painting. Whatever is there communicates in a painting rather than through a painting, a revealing not a rational, intentional communication. The process of my painting is blind; the painting is only seen on completion. The paintings are not minimalistic, structuralist or concerned with theoretic linguistics. I remove myself from the paintings, though this is never complete—distancing self-expression, and expressionism, as well as avoiding for myself symbolic narratives, or metaphoric readings. I'm against the use of painting to convey an instrumental rationality; evident contradictions and absurdity are accepted. In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot waiting is the repeated and continual deferral of meaning, which is itself generative of meaning, not a striving for meaning.
The use of one colour, black, is a concentration of colour, it introduces the presence of the absence of colours. "I would prefer not to." As Melville's Bartleby said. All marks or graphism, even ruled lines are gesture. The taped lines are like stencils, they leave a negative line, they are an empreinte. "We other we deal with the negative." Kafka. The lines dissociate from, and inscribe, the "tableaux." The whole painting is like a fragment, the disjunctive internal divisions recall reflections, in mirrors or on the surface of water, the external edge of the painting is another interruption. The two breaks emphasise inside and outside. The rupture of the connection is the connection (Derrida). Yves Alain Bois argues that an interruption is temporal. It is also spatial. The painting crystallises in the suspended instant that the artist stops, ceases, pauses. Everything is on or in the surface. Nothing is held back within the language limit, and nothing is embellished. The painting is there, the viewer also feels being there; in this one to one. There needs to be an insistent physicality and repetition, like the original Biblical Hebrew, rather than the English lyrical translations with imposed and unnecessary vocabulary variations (of the use of "and" for example) of most translations. Translation is an interesting subject for the reception of painting. Painting offers direct physical experience, and thoughtful engagement, dialogue. Thinking is poetizing: "primordial poetry" Heidegger.
The centric axial section of my paintings may elicit identification anthropomorphically, though this is also effaced as the centric void is blank, or in a counter direction: a radical caesura, in tension with each side. Hence mimesis is negated, and with it the promise of identification is effaced. "Meaning inheres even in the disavowal of meaning," Theodore W. Adorno. This effacement is paradoxical, the otherness, where the figure should be, is silence flanked by articulation. The interrelation is incompatibility. The relative emptiness of my compositions can have an hypnotic simplicity comparable to Tantric Art. Disjunction across and between the vertical sections is the difference between Kairological and Chronological time; the transitions are disruptive, active, particular, and not homogenous: predictable and levelled out. The concrete particularities of the oblique lines, their uneven edges and exposed canvas are in contrast to the expanse of black surface, a gesture of writing that is not constructive, but rather disruptive and penetrating (again, from the Greek graphein, which means scraping or scratching and to write about something). Rather than following the anterior narrative obsession by which paintings become belated illustrations George Didi-Hubermann refers to the term dialectic (dialectical image) to suggest a way to think of painting away from a positivistic interpretation that implies through knowledge all will be clear and decipherable; he is considering the opposite, meaning that we relinquish our grasp of the image in order to allow the image to lead us. In the nouveau roman and French cinema, focus on the non-teleological repetition of details without the usual conventional plot structure to explore experience, and the processes of thought.
I don’t proscribe meanings, the viewer will make associations for themselves and are welcome to. Roland Barthes: ‘A painting’s meaning lies not in its origin, but in its destination.’ In its becoming. Hubert Damisch on Dubuffet, "...he liked to work in the thickness of the ground—I mean the tableaux—to revel what is beneath." Hans Hartung too, worked in the thickness of the surface, informed as he was from his experience of printmaking. Jannis Kounellis knew that the objective immediacy of bodily immanence is unsustainable, meaning cannot be fully realised this way, this difficulty attains a sense of mourning. Despite the impossibility of the modernist project and because the work is connected to the past at the same time as the present a utopic impulse remains without an explanation. I think of what painting can be, I’m not interested in dogmas of either geometrical abstraction or colour theory; there is negativity in my desire for a different way to beauty or sublimity. Any understanding of painting happens over time, and with other people, in a kind of community. I approach painting, I don’t say I know what it is. The function of painting is to pose questions about our being and our desires, it embodies our orientations in life; it evinces an already fragmentary subjectivity. Always, there is a "posthumous maturation" to cite Walter Benjamin: an on going change from viewing to reviewing paintings over time, in our own experience and historically. My paintings are neither purely structural nor idealistic. They are not a demonstration of a unique skill. The making is apprehensible and simple but the viewing involves ambiguation: there is constant unfolding rather than an arrival at a destination. Mallarmé’s poems and Klee’s paintings are machines that generate form and meaning—finding what was not there before; this is produced, in the Greek sense, and not created, in the Thomist theological sense. Heidegger's translation of the Anaximander Fragment is against the profound loss caused by imposed presuppositions in previous translations. Benjamin proposes that language is already a translation of the language of things. Paintings are things too, and we struggle to translate them. I don't expect my paintings to be immediately intelligible, art is indemonstrable. The more or less abrupt transitions and repetitions in my paintings might also be indicative of paintings increasing uncertainty over its place in the world, not to mention our own.
New York, December 2022 - August 2023
Deeply imbued with references to the history of art, David Rhodes' pictorial language limits itself to several technical elements repeated by the artist in each painting he creates. Vertical lines of different widths reveal nuances of the canvas surface. The limitation to black paint and the colour of the canvas or paper responds to an intent to mediate the process of painting without the distraction of multitudes of color and toward an expression at once economical and urgent.
Just so, through repetition, and structure, the eye, aroused by incidents, can abandon the quick glance and thus concentrate on the perception of details and how they correspond and so crystalize differently. Then one can begin apprehending the rhythmic, formal, particular differences between the paintings. The precision, directness, and openess in Rhodes' technical process are intended to intensify rather than reduce contingency and complexity.
The way the artist chose to title the exhibition says a lot about the nature of his body of work, a whole that can be seen as a never-ending and unique series of paintings that paradoxically make diversity arise through repetition. These new paintings are thus organically connected with their precedents. It is not that the artist searches only for simplicity, on the contrary, he also intends to intensify complexity, but not in an expansive way but within narrow margins. Rhodes has determined these margins by establishing language limits: he paints black on raw canvas, or paper, and composes with vertical lines. Starting from these premises, the outcome becomes unexpected: paintings next to each other reveal formal and affective differences.
Vertical lines show different widths and inclinations while the applied paint amplifies the presence of the canvas surface. The concept of the variation helps to understand each individual painting as also a part of something larger, a common harmonic pattern that naturally connects one painting to another and so on. Time is a magnitude that becomes necessary for the apprehension of these works that are apparently simple both in process and result. A slow glance at Rhodes` works proves how this extreme economical expression can suddenly create fluctuations and rhythms.
María Pfaff, gallery text, New Paintings at Tat Art Barcelona (Galeria Carles Taché), Barcelona, 2017
Mary Jones for Artcritical 2016, excerpts:
The works are bold and diagrammatic, at once elegant and urgent. Black acrylic paint is applied directly to raw canvas, which is still visible in thin, vertical, skewed lines that slice through the black surface with an intense rhythmic pitch. Reflections, folds, and mirrors may all come to mind, but the compositions are held in tension against any possible convergences, simple readings or symmetry. They reverberate with the particular beauty inherent to clarity spurred to adventurous action.
MJ: You’ve titled your show “Between the Days,” which is the also title of one of the paintings, the others remaining untitled, with the date and city of completion listed on every painting. What’s the reference?
DAVID RHODES: The title refers to the nature of transition. The passages from one day to another are irregular. This passage of time is not seamless, homogeneous, only chronological.
MJ: You share a number of things with On Kawara: a painting completed in a single day, the use of black, frequent travel, and a consistency of process from painting to painting. Do you feel a connection to his work?
DR: Painting related to a particular date. For me, that moment in time is important to acknowledge, for years I’ve marked a date and city on every canvas. Although the paintings aren’t about that specific day and place, they are subject to circumstances, and have associations for me. Because I've been so peripatetic, it enables marking a place and time in my own life, as well as acknowledging times odd recurrence. I think about Walter Benjamin's idea of "posthumous maturation," Marcel Proust's "involuntary memory" and Henri Bergson's "irrepressible" alternative durations—all appear during what is regarded as continuous chronological time. The paintings structure and process reappear, there is no singular evolution, rather many moments of recursion.
MJ: One thing that’s very different from Kawara is the scale of your new paintings. How is scale changing your work?
DR: Size alters the way we relate to a painting. It’s a different kind of intimacy. A larger surface is present and we are in it. Rothko said that the ideal viewing distance for his paintings is around 18 inches. A relation to the architecture of any give space is important when considering an exhibition of my paintings and that relation changes with the size of the paintings. I could add that my paintings can often be inverted, having in many instances two vertical orientations. The internal compositional relations are direct and spare, I think of for example the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg or J.S. Bach: musical inversion and isomorphic partition. Each panel is also a passage to and from an edge or mute internal fissure that is never completely contained or cut off. This is a break which is also a connection—the silence between mutual attraction and enmity. Think of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, the scene where two characters are separated from each other by an open door, or Matisse's 'Window at Couliere' with its vertical divisions of space. Size also changes the impact.
MJ: Could you describe your process?
The process of making is how the paintings appear, they are very accessible visually. There’s a high degree of given structure that allows movement and controlled spontaneity. That movement, is like a dance in the way it unfolds. The lines are taped each section is made consecutively without over deliberation. The lines are several different widths, and always other than a 90 degree angle. From one section to the next direction is reversed. Between each section of the painting the seam is visible as in a textile or an architectural section. Some examples for me in architecture are the sectional structures of Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum, the sections of sheet marble in Mies van de Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion or the surface concrete shuttering marks in the pilotis of Le Corbusier's Unite L'Habitation in Marseille. The paintings are usually made from left to right, although there are exceptions. After each section is painted tape is removed and the next section is made. There’s no planning it all out beforehand. It’s a question of the relationships or constellations as they appear, including all the dislocations and dissonances, which are desired.
MJ: The color black has so many connotations; urban life and industrialisation, as well as transcendence and negation. Are you using black metaphorically?
DR: The viewer will project what they will, and that’s fine, for me black is not meta. Before these paintings I was using a full range of colour, and I felt the relationships that color offered were such a subject itself that I wanted to work in a way in which color wasn’t about its relationship with other present colours, but in fact with their absence. I'm interested in the monochromaticism of far eastern art, Chinese ink paintings for example, where black isn't used against or in a rejection of color but always in relation to absent color. I'm interested in the aesthetic in Kakuzo Okakura's Book of Tea and Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa's book on Japanese Noh Theatre. Black and Red figure krater painting of 6th and 5th century BCE Greece has long interested me. Jannis Kounellis used black in an elemental way in his paintings and sculptures, combining everyday materials such as coal or sackcloth. This elemental directness is a contemporaneity that also connects to historicity with Kounellis. I can identify with this approach. It is Arte Povera, together with an historical enfolding or simultaneity.
MJ: Kasimir Malevich formulated the black square to signify an absolute rejection of any possibilities for pictorial representation in favor of pure expression. Do you identify with this kind of abstraction?
DR: My paintings do have different parts in relation to each other, but they are not propositional, and I'm not looking to replace one thing with another as a representation.
MJ: Can you describe this further?
I feel as if I follow the paintings. They’re not describing ideas that I have a priori, or illustrating something I desire specifically to manifest through painting. They’re not an expression of my ego. I find the paintings of interest so I make more. In being productive, and engaged, as both Spinoza and Marx indicated, is perhaps essential to being fully human. To be painting is, or anyway can be, a vital counter to the passive consuming of leisure time and entertainment. I want my paintings to have connection and resonance with the day-to-day world, as they are one more surface, as well as with abstract ideas.
MJ: Is it important to you that there be a feeling of urgency in your work?
DR: Without desire they would be decorative.
MJ: The surfaces of your paintings are very straightforward, there’s no enhancement. It’s a surface that identifies with its elements; it doesn’t transcend its materials, it underscores them. Is this in the service of immediacy?
DR: It’s a very specific surface. It’s neither stained nor layered, it’s somewhere in-between. It’s a resistant kind of surface, not so inviting. My paintings don’t have an overt element of craft. They’re unpretentious, painted like a wall. I think of Arte Povera: Burri, and Fontana, for example. This directness also embodies the mystery presented by ordinary objects and surfaces that make up a lot of our perceived world. Resistance is an important word, against the spectacularization and the uniformization of complexity in the world. It's a word used by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in this respect. There is also Giorgio Agamben's example: J.S. Bach refusing the separation of the secular and sacred in his music. More accepted paradox.
MJ: Is there a connection to the black paintings of Frank Stella?
DR: When I was at art school, early on I came across a Hollis Frampton photograph of Stella kneeling in front of a painting with a house painters brush, on his way to completing some rectangular concentric lines, and it made a lot of sense to me. I didn’t feel at that moment I could enter into painterly expressionism or conceptual minimalism, there seemed to be too many assumptions that I didn’t connect to. But when I looked at the black paintings, they seemed to have an emotion, and sublimity, without relying on invoked transcendence or a narrative. They’re pragmatic in their making, but not without mystery, and they inspired me early on. Later, I found myself returning to something that has a relationship to those paintings without being imitative. Stella wanted to move space out of the paintings evenly, and I would like space to be in the painting unevenly.
MJ: How does writing about art affect your practice?
DR: It accesses a different aspect of my relationship to the work that I see. In the craft of writing unexpected ideas connect, and different associations are made that couldn't be anticipated until doing the actual writing. It happens to a degree with conversational thinking, but in the isolated form of writing, it can be how new thoughts arrive. I agree with the view that Mallarmé’s poems and Klee’s paintings are machines that generate or produce form and and consequently meaning, themselves. Produced, that is, in the Greek sense, and not created, in the Thomist theological sense. Benjamin proposes that language is already a translation of the language of things. Paintings are things too, and we struggle to translate them don't we?
Sharon Butler for Two Coats of Paint 2016, excerpts:
Sharon Butler: Abstraction seems to be having a moment right now, but you’ve been making abstract paintings for a long time. Why are you drawn to it?
David Rhodes: Abstraction is now one way of making a painting among many others, although for me, abstraction was the only way to make a painting. When I began, abstract painting was viewed with contempt, but I was never interested in making figurative painting, as much as I loved many examples of it, or joining the exodus from painting to other media. Abstract painting uses color and form as poetry uses words—not necessarily for a given signification. There are connections to philosophy and music. Possibilities also in using chance and repetition, the throw of a dice. Fugue and canon forms from music find equivalencies in abstract painting. I want to see what will happen in each painting and by making the same painting, in a way, over and over, I am discovering difference, and what in each particular painting compels. I think of this as a form of automatism that releases retrospectively with fecundity formal elements that I am unaware of at the time of making each painting. The interstices of line orient differently each time, for example, and in unexpected constellations. I'm not looking to make virtuosity an effect. In my paintings I don't work to show my preexisting thoughts, the paintings are not propositional so much as they have physical characteristics that lead to new thoughts. As I see it, the exilic power of painting is in the endless,
discontinuous, fragmented, nomadic, and always interrogative: this forms and unforms paintings. Abstract painting is also, as I see it, still extra-national, not provincial, and it is still capable of very nuanced unexpected meaning.
TCOP: But what about the black? Let’s get back to that. Do you see it as the absence of color (like light) or the combination of all colors (like paint)? Also, do you mix your own like we were taught in art school?
DR: I’ve always been interested in black as a colour, a different and particular source of light. I’ve always been interested in early Italian painting, Cimabue for example, and in Spanish painting, the melancholy in Zurbarán or Velasquez. Also, Byzantine mosaics, like those at Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon, where the inversion to a black ground with negative drawing obviously also interested me, and the wall fresco paintings of Pompeii, Attic red and black figure vases from Greece. Matisse reintroduced black in a radical way, as a source of light, and as a colour. Matisse, and Pollock are painters I feel directly responsive to. I'm using only carbon black or on paper Sumi ink. I was interested in Stella's black paintings for some other reasons than how they are categorised—rather, the idea of a new possibilities, emotional, nuanced, and non-technocratic painting, not reductive painting that represents an end point. The matter of fact way of their facture didn't undermine but actually seemed to enhance their sublimity. Also, In my painting any "deductive structure" is not determined by the framing shape, which acts rather as another cut at the paintings edge. The problem of colour is not optical only, it's libidinal, any sublimation is consequential, but not something typically addressed openly in post-painterly abstraction, color is intimately entangled in a host of social and subjective determinations, including this libidinal economy. The first generation of Ab-Ex painters, Pollock, Newman, Rothko understood all this, there is an admirable impurity in their work: there is always more there than formal qualities, as well as the obvious immanent medial restraints of paint and canvas. Optically, I don’t want the black to be assertively cool or warm, natural light, as it fluctuates changes the appearance of the colour. My emphasis on material and process is not what was once regarded as progressive, but which was for me often overly rational, the "sombre order of technical efficiency" as Simon Hantaï said. One could say about the color black, "The night (black) is the clarity that reveals the longing for colors." I often use paint manufactured in, or available in, the city or country where I’ve been living and working, so while I’m here in New York I’m using Golden acrylic, in Berlin, Lascaux acrylic.
TCOP: Using local materials is also a nod to tradition. In the old days people used the pigments found in their community.
DR: Yes, you’re right. I paint on canvas which is bought in this country. 18 to 24 lbs per square inch has enough surface for me, a clear tactility. This is a found material in one sense, as well as an active element in the paintings, it is also a colour. The painted areas can appear less tactile than the raw canvas and I like that contradiction. The physicality of the painting comes from both the material that the paint is applied to, as well as the amount of paint. There is a one to one relation with the viewer, two physical entities, one moving in relation to the other. I am also thinking about silence, muteness, stillness, as in Beckett's work, for example.
TCOP: Which contemporary painters interest you.
DR: Many. Helmut Federle, for example, also those from recent history: Burri, Fontana, Kounellis, Hartung, Poliakoff, Hantaï. Rothko, Newman and Pollock are foundational for me. Pollock's influence on European painting is extraordinary, and not the same as his also extraordinary influence in the U.S. where his influence was soon directed into post-minimalist sculpture and away from painting. Lee Lozano's angular compositions interest me a lot too.
TCOP: You are fond of French and German abstract painters too.
DR: Yes. When I moved to Berlin in 2003 one reason was because I had always been interested in post-war European abstract painting, German, Italian, French. There is not such a strong tradition of modernism, or modern art in England, it never became as central to the culture as it did in Berlin, Paris, and later New York. Before the WW II there was a tradition of modern art in much of Europe, it becomes complicated after. That war caused a diaspora, and of course some of those fleeing intellectuals and artists came to New York. I find that despite globalization there are continuing and important contrasts between places because of the context derived from distinct histories. In Germany, for example, Palermo and Förg have long been important artists. The critical discourse around painting is different in Europe to that here in the U.S.. French post war painting had a small presence in London at the time I left (2003) or even in New York, these days that is changing slowly.
TCOP: You’re an itinerant painter! I like that. I went from sublet to sublet for years. I like the way moving around throws the work into a semi-permanent transition mode. I didn’t try to maintain consistency. But it looks like you’ve been able to focus on the same images despite your changing surroundings.
DR: I have been an itinerant artist, yes, a voluntary exile and not entirely in control of this. It's surely a case of absorbing something from whichever place that is not so obvious at the time. This also changes the perception of where I'm not, the place that I leave. What happens in the paintings is not a reflection of a place in literal terms, it’s rather about being excilic, experiencing otherness as a person. There are great advantages in staying put too, of course. John Ashbery described American painters living in Paris as "apatrides," meaning that they were stateless, he thought the sporadic relocations and geographic switchbacks of a peripatetic life allowed them to come at painting afresh and slightly off balance. It is interesting to consider this aspect of working, and making a life somewhere else, whether it is Picasso, Joan Mitchell, Hans Hartung, Simon Hantaï or James Bishop, also in a somewhat different way, as it was not their initiative, and they moved so young, Gorky or Rothko. The questions are, what is lost, retained, revisited, and eventually, what remains from moving from place to place.
TCOP: Have your paintings changed since your last show at Hionas three years ago?
DR: The paintings from three years ago all used the same sequence of vertical lines that essentially made two V-shapes. The rhythm involved and the depth of the space had a focused ambiguity that was less all over compared to the current paintings. Now, all the off-vertical lines are multiplied, this drawing in the surface or tableaux produces a fractured discontinuous space. Diagonals make for a dynamic balance or a destabilised space, undermining any simple idea of a given grid say. The lines are between vertical and horizontal, on the way to balance but not there, not fixed, if you like. I think of the lines as accumulating gesture, interruption, dissonance. When the paintings capture light falling on them an unevenness of surface is revealed. Lines are incised. It is, for me, not to do with flatness, but a tactility, the working into the surface or tableaux. I make the paintings quickly, unseen until the tape is removed, I can look at them as the viewer does, they surprise me, any lengthy reflection comes a posteriori.
TCP: What about the Music, film, literature, that is important for you?
Music that I listen to, for example: J.S. Bach, Beethoven's late quartets, Schoenberg, his Pierrot Lunaire (the Sprechstimme, or spoken singing), John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billy Holiday, Son House, Ragas, Flamenco, Raga, Neopolitan traditional, for amongst other reasons the timbre, repetition, structure, feeling. Film, in particular Antonioni, Godard, Rossellini, Ozu, Straub & Huillet, Chantal Ackerman, all directors who use montage and stillness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a 1920 German silent film with painted sets, and slanting camera angles, the German angle as it is called. Photographers I look at, Brassai's photos of graffiti, and Luigi Ghirri's Italian street scenes. Poetry? Yes, many examples, Tu Fu, Sappho, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Hölderlin, Célan, Reverdy, Appolinaire, Jabés, Lorca, Rosselli, Fontini, Pasolini, Ashbury, Bishop, Schuyler.
TCP: You are articulate about your work, is this because you are also writing about art?
DR: Well, when thinking about painting, and writing about it, Stephen Melville's comment is apposite, "...here would be less something a critic or historian brings to the work (perhaps to decode it, perhaps to justify it) than something to be traced in it, and writing would belong to such work as part of its unfolding, a continuation of the conditions of its appearing." I find it difficult to write about my own work, when I do it's in the form of notes and citations.
The range of effects and the nuances of affect presented by the paintings of David Rhodes would be remarkable enough in an artist who set himself few restraints. And yet – initially at least – the defining characteristic of this New York debut exhibition of the Berlin-based British painter is the stringency and starkness of its pictorial system.
On raw canvases that follow the same tripartite division, in a deadpan application of one acrylic black, Rhodes arranges three sets of parallel stripes. These vary considerably in thickness but – in the painting process – the black is clearly worked against strips of masking tape of maybe just two or three widths. And as (rather like a woodcut) it is the exposed raw canvas rather than the acrylic strokes that registers as the signifying stripe.
Reading from left to right, the three sets go top left to bottom right, back to top right, down to bottom right. In one or two paintings of sparse population and thin exposed stripe we can almost read “VA” allowing for the absence of the A’s crossbar and the doubling of its and the V’s shared inner diagonal. But generally his hieroglyph eludes the Latin alphabet, while seeming alphabet-like – a kind of semiotic reverse, in this respect, of Al Held’s Alphabet series, seen last spring at Cheim & Read.
Art historically the most striking resemblance is to Frank Stella of the period of The Marriage of Reason and Squalor although, again topically, the early grid works of Sean Scully (on view at the Drawing Center) are another apt point of reference. Rhodes actually occupies expressive territory closer to the later works of both those artists while retaining the formal rigor of their earlier efforts. Thinking about him this way helps us locate his “minimalism” as proto, or post, in the sense that the restraints of his system serve emotional rather than purely cerebral ends. His art is one of economy rather than reduction per se (is modernist not minimalist as some might put it).
There is unmistakable warmth to the paintings, despite their pared-down qualities. This results from what could be dismissed as studio contingencies and yet feels intentional, possibly even integral. Tolerated rub and burr lend surfaces the feel of (again) woodcut despite the undisguised materiality of canvas and absented tape. But even if Rhodes were able to program a Roxy Paine-like robot to dispatch his paintings for him, several ensuing perceptual phenomena would continue to enrich – to mitigate and complicate – his streamlined modus operandi.
There is the effect, for instance, of proximate bands of black triggering retinal sensations of other colors so that in one painting there might seem to be alternating black and blue. Then there are the disconcerting twists and tapers, in multiple possibilities, where one set of diagonals jar with another in what New Yorkers might want to call the Flatiron effect. The differing canvas sizes seen in the close quarters of Hionas’s Lower East Side gallery and the inclusion in the back room of a couple of works on paper bring home the crucial variables of scale and support in determining the impact of this reduced vocabulary. There is a lot that can be said within strict adherence to a format.
It’s instructive to compare Rhodes with fellow Brit Ian Davenport whose current show of sumptuous stripes at Paul Kasmin is itself fortuitously timed with Ameringer McEnery Yohe’s overview of the perennially scintillating Gene Davis. Davenport juxtaposes skillfully held-in-check chromatic brilliance with the flourish of exuberantly unpredictable puddles in what nonetheless seem like exquisitely orchestrated marbling as the paint oozes out of his pipes of color. Returning to Rhodes, after this over the top pop, is rather like listening to Bach violin sonatas after a Baroque opera. But as with Bach, you soon hear as many voices and as much emotion.
David Cohen, Schwarzwälde at Hionas Gallery, Artcritical, New York, 2013
David Rhodes’ exhibition Schwarzwälde at Hionas Gallery on the Lower East Side is a potent reminder that paintings are invitations to reflect and, at their best, transcend their own means.
At first glance, Rhodes’ paintings are darkly hermetic. Their minimalist clarity and completeness are forbidding, and the viewer cannot find a point of entry. Indeed, Rhodes’ canvases seem to shout Stella’s dictum “what you see is what you see.” Yet, after a few moments, they suddenly open outward.
Using a severely limited vocabulary - raw canvas, thinly stained black acrylic paint, and carefully taped edges - Rhodes creates an unbounded experience. His paintings are full of nuanced perception and keenly invoke of the legacy of modernism.
Rhodes’ paintings embody minimalism’s factuality, employ the techniques of color field painting, and evoke the existentialism of the New York School. The fractured unity of each composition recalls Cubism. All this Rhodes accomplishes without forgoing image - perceiving a forest, here, is a leap, but not a big one. The paintings’ kinetic effect is similar to that of moving through deeply wooded space - close, dark forms passing in and out of one’s field of focus.
Berlin-based Rhodes doesn’t reference just any forest, however, he chooses der Schwarzwald, the Black Forest. A place of legend, the Black Forest beckons to the intrepid, not the faint of heart. Within, unknown dangers lurk, but also untold treasures; it is a place of realized visions, of magic. Perhaps the most potent reading of Rhodes’ recent work is a symbolist one. In his hands, the language of late modernism does not celebrate a definitive aesthetic; rather, it suggests the possibilities of painting. With minimal means, Rhodes paints a total experience - both the forest and the trees lie in wait for the viewer.
Bret Baker, Painters Table, New York, 2013
Michel Ragon writes in the opening paragraph of his essay about the Russian-born French artist Serge Poliakoff (1906 – 1969) published in 1958:
There are a great many people who refer everything back to the past. Does the present frighten them? Perhaps not, but historical remoteness reassures them. You are unlikely to go wrong in admiring a still-life by Chardin. Whereas, even with Braque, for example, you never can tell… Looking at a modern painting, the public will say: "One might take it for a prehistoric picture." Or before another: "Isn’t it just like a new Greco or a latterday La Tour?" It may be that I have yielded to the opposite deformation, for I am in the habit (which has become second nature) of referring everything to the present. Anyhow, past works of art, I readily admit it, interest me only insofar as they help me to understand, to explain contemporary works. Thus, the reason why I am so passionately fond of certain Italian Primitives is that I can exclaim before them:
"Oh, what a fine Poliakoff!"
On a Sunday afternoon driving across the San Francisco Bay Bridge on the way to Golden Gate Park, on the upper deck of the western suspended span that leads into the City, the vertical suspender cables or rods, called hangers, snapped past peripherally as line and texture, angle and light, suddenly and clearly making me think of David Rhodes’s recent black and white paintings, which I’d hung just a few days before. Rather than the bridge experience helping me see or understand Rhodes’s work, instead I said to myself something like:
"Oh, what a fine Rhodes!"
I have driven across this bridge hundreds of times, and that moment of recognition or resonance seemed more than simply a loose association, but instead an instance of visual leap, overlap, acknowledgement, and synthesis. I thought it interesting that the bridge was seen differently after the paintings, rather than the paintings seen as secondary to the bridge. That changed my relationship to Rhodes’s work; art came first and illuminated life, an experience reduced and dense that makes the paintings, the kind that we call abstract, themselves more real, the actual primary source rather than the painted image abstracted from life.
Chris Ashley, extract from the exhibition text for Some Walls, Oakland, California, 2012
Some of the paintings, especially the more minimal paper works can seem like preliminary designs or sketches, however, these works are complete: though they are conceivably unfinished in the sense that they can be potentially expanded in different directions. Therefore all that is fixed or finished is a current state: one possible moment. With prolonged viewing, and without excluding an iconographic reading, spatial and topological modulations and velocities now interchange.
Barbara Buchmaier, Zeit-Zeichen (Time Signs) extract from catalogue text, Berlin, 2005
The lines created by brush certainly are the mark or extension of his hand and thus his body; Jackson Pollock's drips are probably the most prominent example of this notion of "embodiment." It is an interpretation inspired by Merleau-Ponty who's idea that our relation to the world is always via the body, that is "the insertion of the mind in corporeality." Hence his philosophy, and in particular his writings on painting, bring us back to our corporeal existence. The critic Mark Ginsbourne has written of Rhodes' painting in terms of the haptic, specifically, he has described Rhodes' work as being as "concerned with configured space and surface boundaries, a consideration and questioning as to how we frame our perceptions." This work is not in any way a simple reevaluation of post-painterly abstraction, rather it is also preoccupied with an exploration of such interests as the distinctions of structure and timbre in music: Morton Feldman and John Cage as well and J.S. Bach. Like Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko or Blinky Palermo, it is a felt art where passions and thinking are disseminated through formal structures. As much as politics and pathos can be discussed through representation—painting and particularly abstract painting can solicit "joyance" to use Jacques Derrida's term.
Sherman Sam, extract from solo exhibition catalogue, Vis-a-Vis, Palacete Viscondes de Balsemao, Porto, 2005