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 Adorno from Notes on Kafka, first published 1953
Excerpt of conversation between Clement Page and David Rhodes the final expanded text of which will appear in Turps Banana, London, in Winter 2022
CP. It is obvious to say that a painting changes over the time of its making. What an artist considers successful in a painting on one day may appear wrong on another and so the painter is driven to continue working.
Even when a painting is considered finished it goes on changing, depending on the state if mind of the painter or the person looking at it.
How does your evaluation of a painting change over time and what methods do you use to refresh your view of a painting while making it?
DR. Initially, I find it impossible to be sure exactly what I have made, whatever I might feel about it. I find paintings can't be apprehend immediately, however simple and direct they appear, this is as interesting painting should be. It's a slow process that never settles. The initial impact is a beginning, some painting offers nothing more unfortunately, it is just a fast read of information. I work quickly, and blind, I don't see the painting until the tape I have used is removed. I aim to avoid over determination. In returning to look repeatedly over time I engage in that strange but constant experience of memory and forgetting. Loss and remembrance is a part of Jewish theology that interests me.
CP. How do you know when it’s time to leave a painting alone, to declare it finished.
DR. I don’t return to work on a painting in an incremental way.
CP. During the process of painting accidents or chance events can occur, which may be viewed as mistakes, or may be viewed as valuable. These (Mistakes) or chance paint events, maybe destroyed, (covered up) or left (incorporated) into the painting.
Does chance play a role in your painting practice?
DR. There are always various accidental interactions between the surface, canvas and paint. The taped lines bleed imperfectly and the paint is absorbed by the canvas unevenly. The paint becomes part of the substrata, it is largely absorbed, rather than a coating over the canvas. The composition of the painting is open to unexpected constellations of line, yes, chance does play a role.
CP. Is it something you embrace or avoid ?
DR. I embrace it, to exclude it, or attempt to, would be unnecessary within the limits I have already set before beginning a painting.
CP. Over time the experiences of making paintings, the way paint material behaves in certain situations and how we learn to manipulate it becomes unconscious. Often when painting this knowledge becomes conscious again, we remember, but only through the process of making.
Could you talk about the aesthetic processes you use in painting; are you always aware of the processes, or do you remember as you make the painting?
DR. I repeat the process. It becomes, I would say, unselfconscious, many of our actions have this aspect. There is a relation to automatism and gesture, though not as unmediated subjectivity, I’m not looking for that. Automatism is in the use of materials, it's bodily rather than exclusively or emphatically psychic.
CP. Do you have a plan of what you are going to paint, does the painting deviate from this plan when being made?
DR. Usually the painting is surprising, which may sound surprising, given the limits that I set.
CP. Do you ever work in an unplanned way?
DR. The limits are set, and within this, difference sparks all the time.
CP. Today painting can mean so many things. The material certainty and stylistic consistency which permeated its practice up until the late 1950s has since been radically challenged. Since the 1960’s painters regularly change their mode of expression, change visual languages, even contradictory visual languages in parallel series.
How has this shift away from the use of a consistent visual language or the use of multiple series of works affected your practice as a painter?
DR. I think over time an artists temperament focuses or expands, currently the openness for painting is good, but is also a trap, turning from one mode of painting to another is fine for certain artists, but not others. Philosophical ideation: questions of subjectivity, or political views, all contribute to choices made, consciously or not. Following what is literally happening in the paintings usually determines what gets made next, there is always a dialectic between artist and painting, painting and viewer. The viewer also has agency in looking. On the point of subjectivity, I don't think of my paintings as an indication or expression of this, they are more of a negation, a non-identity with myself. They are a way toward what painting can generate, what is outside the bounds of a usual use of language. What is it that language replaces? The communication we have with objects for example. And, the discontinuities that gesture produces—a distance from an instrumental use of language, and the precarity this engenders.
CP. Much contemporary painting has absorbed conceptual art and its critique of personal expression exemplified by Abstract Expressionism. Today it seems clear that painting is a social language - its signification is codified, is a language. How conscious are you that the paintings you make depend upon a social exchange, or shared, codified language ?
DR. That shared and codified language should break down, yet there are continuities. The social exchange makes painting art, this interchange with viewers is key, but can’t necessarily be determined, it can cause discontinuity and dissonance in the experience of historical or everyday time. Matisse was asked what he would paint if he was alone on an island, nothing was his reply: as with no one else to see his painting, there would be no point. I’m less interested in propositional thinking, Kafka is a case where human relations within a society are made clear without explication, the gestures in his writing are not direct images, they interrupt narrative time, and disrupt instrumental thinking. In the societies of the Capitalist West a lot has changed, I'm thinking of the writings of Paulo Virno, and his 'A Grammar of the Multitude,' for example. Also, lets not forget that it was a displacing of painting's critical and historical position, and its capacity for exploring reality or subjectivity that was co-opted by the dominant critical discourse of the 60s and 70s. Replacing painting with conceptual art strategies and sculpture gives the impression later painting is indebted to them. In fact, the relation became dialectical. These days a lot of contemporary art, including painting, is about self, narration, messages. A philosophical reticence as well as leanness of means, can be a disruption of this, to say the least. I also consider what is communicated, other than subject matter, in silence.
London/New York/Berlin 2022
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 color 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, urgent and emotional.
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 temperamental 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, rhythms, and an emotional atmosphere.
María Pfaff, gallery text, New Paintings at Tat Art Barcelona (Galeria Carles Taché), Barcelona, 2017
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 of our relation to the world is 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 textures of 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
Mary Jones for Artcritical, 2016: 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 transition, or a break, and a reclaiming. As the paintings are usually completed in a day, what is between one painting and another is an irregular passage of time, not a seamless, homogeneous time, the breaks also occur internally in the paintings themselves.
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: In some respects. His making a painting that is related to the day it was made, of course. For me, that moment in time is important to acknowledge, and for years I’ve listed the specific date and city on every canvas. Although the paintings aren’t about that specific day and place, they are subject to circumstances, and have specific associations, because I have been peripatetic it enables marking place and time in my own life. I am thinking about Walter Benjamin's idea of "posthumous maturation," Marcel Proust's "involuntary memory" as well as Henri Bergson's "irrepressible" alternative duration appearing during continuous and chronological time. The painting's structure and process reappear over time, there is no singular evolution, rather many moments of recursion an repetition.
MJ: One thing that’s very different from Kawara is the scale of your new paintings. How is scale changing your work?
DR: The scale alters the way it’s possible to relate to the painting physically, it makes a very different physical and emotional impact. It’s a different kind of intimacy.
A relation to the architecture of any give space is always important for me when considering the exhibition of my paintings, that relation is different with a change in scale of the paintings. I could add that the paintings can sometimes be inverted, they can have two vertical orientations. The internal compositional relations I prefer direct, spare, I think of for example the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg and J.S. Bach, musical inversion and isomorphic partition. Each panel is a passage, to and from an edge or mute fissure, not completely contained or cutting off one section from another. This is a break, and a connection, a silence between mutual attraction and emnity. I could mention Godard's Alphaville and the scene where the two main carachters are separated from each other by an open door, but visible to the viewer, or Matisse's 'Window at Couliere' with it's divisions of vertical space.
MJ: Could you describe your process?
The process of making is how the paintings appear. There’s a high degree of given structure that allows movement and spontaneity. That movement, like a dance movement, creates through the way it unfolds. The way the lines are taped allows for each section to be made consecutively without over deliberation. The vertical lines are different widths, and they’re always at an off vertical angle. From one section to the next directions are reversed. Between each section of the painting the seam is visible as in a textile. Or architectural section, for example the section structure of Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum, or the surface section of sheet marble in Mies van de Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion. The paintings are usually made from left to right, although there are exceptions. After each section is painted the tape is removed and in response to seeing that, or ignoring it, which is also a response, the next section is made. There’s no planning it all out beforehand. It’s a question of relationships or constellations as they appear, including al the dislocations and dissonances, which are desired.
MJ: The color black has so many connotations; urban life and industrialization, as well as transcendence and negation. Are you using black metaphorically?
DR: The viewer will project what they will, and that’s fine. Before these paintings I was using a full range of color, and I felt the relationships that color offered, and its relationship to structure was such a subject in itself, I wanted to work in a way in which color wasn’t about its relationship with other colors. 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. It's an aesthetic found in Kakuzo Okakura's Book of Tea and Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa's book on Japanese Noh Theatre. Black figure krater painting of 6th century BCE Greece, has always interested me.
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, they are not propositional, 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 a vital counter to the passive consuming of leisure time and entertainment. Paintings can have resonance with the day-to-day world, and with abstract ideas, they are in themselves a contingent, philosophical position.
MJ: Is it important to you that there be a feeling of urgency in your work?
DR: Without desire they’d be decorative.
MJ: How so?
DR: They could be viewed as decorative, if it were in a violent way, as the decorative aspects of Matisse have been described, pleasure yes, but not only that.
MJ: The surfaces of your paintings are very straightforward, there’s no enhancement. It’s a surface that identifies 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 for layered, it’s somewhere in-between. It’s a resistant kind of surface. My paintings don’t have an overt element of craft, they’re harder surfaces. 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.
MJ: Is this a connection to the black paintings of Frank Stella?
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 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. My current paintings actually feel like a critique of this work in the sense that in those paintings 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 feels as if it accesses a different aspect of my relationship to the work that I see. In the craft of writing, unexpected ideas connect, different associations are made that couldn't be anticipated by doing the actual writing. It happens to a degree with conversational thinking, but in the isolated form of writing, it’s often how ideas occur and new thoughts arrive.
Mary Jones 2016
Sharon Butler for Two Coats Of Paint: 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 has, for a long time been the way for me to make a painting. When I began, abstract painting was largely viewed with contempt, but I was never interested in making figurative painting, or joining the exodus from making any kind of painting. Abstract painting uses color and form as poetry uses words—in conjunction, rather than for paractical 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. By making the same painting, in a sense 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 the paintings: the interstices of lines orient differently each time, in unexpected constellations. I'm not looking to make virtuosity an effect. My paintings don't work to show pre-exisiting thoughts, they are not propositional so much as they have physical characteristics that may lead to new thoughts. As I see it the exilic power of painting is the endless,
discontinuous, fragmented, nomadic, and always interrogative, it forms and unforms paintings. Abstract painting is also still an extra-national not provincial. It is still capable of very nuanced 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 color and as well as a source of light. I’ve always been interested in early Italian painting, Cimabue for example, and Spanish painting, the melancholy in Zurbarán or Velasquez, also Byzantine mosaics, like those at Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon. The inversion to a dark ground with negative drawing interests me. 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. Matisse, and Pollock are painters I feel directly responsive to. I use carbon black. And, I was interested in Stella's black paintings for other reasons than how they usually described: the idea of a new possibility, emotional, nuanced, and non-technocratic. The matter of fact way of their facture didn't undermine but actually seemed to enhance their sublimity. The problem of color 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. In my painting any "deductive structure" is not determined by the framing shape, which acts rather as another cut at the paintings edge. 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 changes the appearance of the color as it fluctuates. My emphasis on material and process is not what was once regarded as progressive, but which was for me tended toward the oppressive and overly rational, the "sombre order of technical efficiency" as Simon Hantaï put it. 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 are 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. 15-lbs per square inch canvas has enough surface for me, a clear tactility, I have also used heavier weights. This is a found material in one sense, and an active element in the paintings, also as a color too. 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.
TCOP: Which contemporary painters interest you?
DR: Many. Helmut Federle, Pierre Soulages for example, not to mention those from recent history: Burri, Fontana, Kounellis, Hartung, 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. Can I mention also Giacometti? A sculptor, and not contemporary, and Cézanne, an artist to always return to. Roman sarcophagi, Greek friezes. That's not what your asking me though is it?
TCOP: You are fond of French and German abstract painters.
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 but not entirely in control, to be sure. It's a case of absorbing something from whichever place I’ve been that is not 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. 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—returning to the same places, for example Berlin, Barcelona, Venice and New York, for me. It is interesting to consider this aspect of working, and making a life somewhere else, whether it is Picasso or Joan Mitchell or James Bishop, or in a somewhat different way as it was not their initiative and they moved so young, Gorky or Rothko: what is lost, what is retained, revisited, and what remains.
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 have multiplied, and as drawing on a surface it is more fractured, in consequence there’s an other kind of space. Diagonals make for a dynamic balance or destabilized space, undermining any simple idea of a given grid. The lines are between vertical and horizontal, on the way to balance but not yet fixed. I think of the lines accumulating as gesture, interruptions, dissonances. When the paintings capture light falling on them, an unevenness of surface is revealed. Line is a color, also between the color black, and always incised It is, paradoxically, not to do with flatness, but more like relief tactility. I make the paintings quickly, unseen until finished when the tape is removed. I can look at them almost as the viewer does—they surprise me, any lengthy reflection comes later.
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. 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 was called. Specific photographers I look at, Brassai's photos of graffiti, and Luigi Ghirri. Poetry? Yes, some examples, Tu Fu, Li Bai, Sappho, Pindar, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Hölderlin, Célan, Reverdy, Lorca, Pasolini many more. Calligraphy, wood block and resist dye printing, also interest me a lot.
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." Writing is next to the work, it can't replace it in any way.
Sharon Butler 2016
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