Deeply imbued with references to the history of art and world cultures, 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
MARY JONES: 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 time and recall, between one moment and another, literally and as memory. And also, as the paintings are quite often completed in a day, between one painting and the next or another.
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: I do in some respects. His making a painting that is clearly related to the day it was made. For me, that moment in time is important to acknowledge, and for years I’ve listed the specific date and city on every canvas. I don’t work on pieces simultaneously, so it’s a means of marking time, and although the paintings aren’t about that specific day and place, they’re subject to those circumstances, and because I’ve moved around so much, it’s important for me to keep this in mind.
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 and conceptually. Because the space of the painting has become large enough to enter imaginatively, it makes a very different physical and emotional impact. It’s a question of a different kind of intimacy.
MJ: Could you describe your process?
The actual process of making contributes to how the paintings appear. There’s a high degree of given structure. I make them in a way that allows movement and spontaneity, in that speed—the creation of circumstance—rather like a dance movement, creates something through the way it happens. The way the paintings are taped allows for each section to be made consecutively without too much deliberation. The vertical lines are different widths, but they’re always at a vertical angle, and from one section to the next go in opposite directions, like cross hatch, writing or gesture. They are usually, but not always, done from left to right—there are exceptions— and as 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 the relationships as they appear. The reason for this economy is that it’s possible to make comparisons to the repetitions and differences in each painting and from one to the next.
MJ: The color black has so many connotations; urban life and industrialization, as well as transcendence and negation. Are you using black metaphorically?
DR: No, but 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. Even though I use black as a color, it’s more about light. In the current Philip Guston exhibition of paintings from 1957 to 1967, he reduced the color to black adjusted by white, so producing grey, and he talked about not wanting to use seductive qualities of color, but to work with light. I have felt similarly.
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: The paintings have implied forms in them that relate in time and space. The different spaces and different moments dislocate, and imply a poise, it's how this impacts emotionally, physically, intellectually—though they are not characteristics in isolation from each other—and how it might factor in relation to a being in the world. But these issues arise because of the painting, rather than the other way around. The paintings are not propositional.
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. I feel that they amount to a dialog, and in this they are smarter than I am. They’re not an expression of my ego: they’re interesting for me; they move me. I find the paintings of interest so I make more. In being productive, and engaged, as say, both Spinoza and Marx indicated was essential to be fully human, to be painting is a vital counter to the passive consuming of leisure time and entertainment. Paintings have resonance with the day-to-day world of abstract ideas, this is also very interesting. The issues come through the painting. They are a contingent philosophical position.
MJ: Is it important to you that there be a feeling of urgency in your work?
DR: It has felt necessary. With a different 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, there’s pleasure, but not only.
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: Yes. It’s a very specific surface. It’s neither stained for layered, it’s somewhere in-between. It’s a resistant kind of surface, and it’s not a surface that has a kind of “drama.” My paintings don’t have an overt element of craft, they’re harder surfaces. They’re painted like a wall.
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 painting 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 yet connect to. But when I looked at these 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 he 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 energy, and a different aspect of my relationship to the work that I see. In the craft of writing, ideas are produced. Actually, in much the same way as in painting, something takes over to a degree. In writing about say a group of paintings by another artist, unexpectedly different ideas connect, different associations are made that couldn’t happen any other way, without doing the actual writing. It happens to a degree with conversational thinking, but in the isolated form of writing a text, it’s surprising how things occur. The craft and process of writing gives something back. It’s expansive. Also, it’s political in that you choose what you write about and you can support art that you think is worthwhile, neglected or misrepresented. I gave a lot of talks in galleries and museums in the UK before leaving for Berlin because people were speaking about artists I respected in ways that I thought were unacceptable, artists such as Blinky Palermo, Jackson Pollock, Mary Heilmann. Their work was important to me and it needed more than some general facts or casual views reiterated for the audience.
Mary Jones, Art Critical, New York, 2016
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: There is openness in the current situation; it’s one way of making a painting among others, although for me, abstraction is painting that I couldn’t achieve in another way. When I began, abstract painting was largely viewed with contempt, but I was never interested in making figurative painting. Abstract painting is many things, for example like poetry where words are used in conjunction and constellation rather than for their obvious signification. There are also obvious 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. I want to see what will happen in each painting. By making the same painting, in a sense, over and over I discover difference, and what in each painting compels. I think of this as a form of automatism that releases retrospectively and with fecundity formal elements that are unconscious at the time of making: the non-disjunctive interstices of lines oriented differently each time. I'm also not looking to make virtuosity an effect. My paintings don't express pre-exisiting thoughts, they are not propositional so much as they have physical characteristics that lead to new thoughts. The exilic power of painting, the endless, discontinuous, fragmented, nomadic, and always interrogative: forms and unforms my paintings. Abstract painting was an extra-national movement, not provincial, and is 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 a source of light. Historically. I’ve always been interested in early Italian painting, Cimabue, and Spanish painting: the melancholy, ecstasy, in Zurbarán, Velasquez, for example. Byzantine mosaics, like those at Torcello, the inversion of dark ground against light drawing. 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 admired Stella's Black Paintings, entirely for other reasons than how they are usually regarded: the idea of a new possibility, emotional, nuanced, non-technocratic. The matter of factness of their facture didn't undermine but actually seemed to enhance their sublimity. The problem of color is not optical only, it's libidinal, sublimation is consequential, not something typically addressed by American post-painterly abstraction, color is intimately entangled in a host of social and subjective determinations, including a libidinal economy. In my painting any "deductive structure" is not determined by the framing shape, which acts rather as another cut. Imagine Stella's career in reverse (laughter). The first generation of Ab-Ex painters, Pollock, Newman, Rothko understood all this, there is an admirable impurity in their work: there is always "extra pictoriality," as well as the immanent medial restraints of paint and color. I don't see my paintings as an expression of a unique personality at all, there are wider concerns. Optically, I don’t want the black to be obviously cool or warm, natural light changes the of paint and canvas. The emphasis on material and process is not what was once regarded as progressive, but which was for me the oppressive overly rational, "sombre order of technical efficiency" that Simon Hantaï once spoke against. One can say as regards color, "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 locally. 15-lbs per square inch canvas has enough surface for me, a clear tactility, I also use heavier weights. This is a found material in one sense, and an active element in the paintings, as color too, recalling Jacques Derrida, or as the French poet and critic Marcelin Pleynet calls it, the ‘always already there-ness of 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. The raw canvas is the past meeting the future, which is to say if you like that the paint has arrived on, is applied to, the surface. 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 for example
TCOP: Which contemporary painters interest you?
DR: Many. Helmut Federle, Pierre Soulages, Bernard Piffaretti, not to mention those from recent history: Burri, Fontana, Hartung, Hantaï. And, Rothko, Newman and Pollock are foundational. Pollock's influence on European painting is extraordinary, and not the same as his also extraordinary influence in the U.S.
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 more in post-war European abstract painting, German, Italian, French. There is not such a strong tradition of Modernism, for want of a better word, in visual art in England, it never became as central to the culture as it did in Berlin, Paris, and later New York. Before the second WW there was a Modernist tradition in much of Europe, it’s very 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 important contrasts between places that are obviously because of the context derived from different histories and contexts. In Germany, for example, Palermo and Förg have long been important artists. The critical discourse around paintings is different to that in the U.S., and French post war painting had a small presence in London at the time I left (2003) or even in New York these days, though that is changing.
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, it is not obvious at the time, also it changes the perception of where I'm not, the place that I leave. It’s not a reflection of the place in literal terms, but it’s something 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," which means stateless, he thought the sporadic relocations and geographic switchbacks of a peripatetic life meant that they came 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, which were interlocking, and established alternating dislocated space. The rhythm involved and the depth of the space were relatively focused compared to the way the paintings are currently. Now, all the off vertical lines have multiplied and as drawing on a surface it is more ambiguous, in consequence there’s an other kind of fragmented space. Diagonals make for a dynamic balance or destabilized space, undermining the idea of a given grid. They're between the vertical and horizontal, on the way to balance but not yet fixed. I haven’t intended to use the mark or the gesture as a specifically knowable dramatic element, these gestures multiply. When the paint captures light, the unevenness of the surface is revealed. The paintings come through the experience of making, not as completely isolated from the rest of life, this making is very accessible. Line is color and line is also between the color, always incised. Parodoxically, not to do with flatness, but more like relief tactility. They are kinesthetic, there is visual movement. I make the paintings quickly, unseen until finished because incremental, so that I can look at them as almost as the viewer—they surprise me. They aren’t pre-planned. Its not about lengthy reflection until afterward, instinctive and reflective, but avoiding psychologism, it’s about being responsive to each part of the painting as I move across the canvas, without knowledge or control of the final result when it's eventually seen. Music is important, the music has stayed the same, J.S. Bach, late Beethoven, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billy Holiday, Son House, Ragas, Flamenco.
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."
Conversation with Sharon Butler in Two Coats of Paint, New York, 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
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 whos 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 exhibition catalogue, Vis-a-Vis, Palacete Viscondes de Balsemao, Porto, 2005
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