“I Paint Myself Out Of The Paintings”: A Studio Visit with David Rhodes
In his second show at Hionas Gallery, three large-scale paintings by David Rhodes fill the gallery space. The work is bold and diagrammatic, at once elegant and urgent. Black acrylic is applied directly to raw canvas, which is still visible in thin, vertical, askew 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 reading, or symmetry. They reverberate with the particular beauty inherent to clarity of purpose spurred to adventurous action.
Rhodes, who began his career in London, committed to New York almost two years ago after years of painting, exhibiting and critical writing in Berlin, Barcelona, and other European cities. His criticism appears regularly at artcritical and The Brooklyn Rail, and he’s also written for Artforum. I met with him at the gallery to discuss the developments in his work over the last few years.
MARY JONES: 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 obliquely to time and recall, between one moment and another. And also, as the paintings quite often are completed in a day, between one painting and the next and the next.
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?
Rhodes: I do feel identification with his making a painting that is clearly about 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.
I found Kawara’s Guggenheim exhibition last year very moving. It was interesting to consider the choices he made in painting the numerals and letters, which seemed to change over time, and in each painting one could see he was making very careful decisions about how they looked. There was a format, but in that format the paintings didn’t remain the same or become stereotypical. Inside the box made for each painting, he always put a sheet of newspaper from that day, so they must be intended to act as metonymic as well. Although they might read as formal and neutral, they’re rooted, both conceptually and by process, in everyday life. There’s a connection to mortality in this passage of time. I can identify with this, in and out of the studio.
One thing that’s very different from Kawara is the scale of your new paintings. How has scale changed your work?
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 not a question of more complexity so much as a different kind of intimacy.
Could you describe your process?
The actual process of making contributes to how the paintings appear. There’s a 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 vertical, and from one section to the next go in opposite directions, like cross hatch. They are usually, but not always, done from left to right, and as each section is painted, the tape is removed, and in response to seeing that the next section is made. There’s no planning it all out beforehand. It’s a question of responding to the relationships as they appear. The reason for this apparent economy is that it’s possible to make comparisons to the repetitions and differences in each painting and from one to the next.
You’ve written about the work of Amy Feldman, and there are some interesting comparisons to be made. Her paintings are also very immediate, spontaneous, and done in a day. Feldman is well known for having many “rehearsal” drawings, a preparatory practice on paper before she approaches the canvas. Is this part of your process?
No, kind of the opposite. It’s important not to know what the outcome might be, and the tension it produces is transferred to the work. It’s a case of making these paintings in the moment and not knowing. But, because of the economy of means and the repetitions, a kind of armature is created for the differences to establish themselves. It’s those differences, the breadth of different emotional values or different formal incidents that makes them interesting. I paint myself out of the paintings.
Feldman is known to sharply edit her work, to allow failure into her process, as revisions aren’t possible. Do your paintings ever fail? Are you able to make revisions?
They do fail, but not so often, and there is a possibility for revision, though in a very limited way. It’s usually an adjustment rather than a wholesale change. If there’s a line that seems superfluous or a transition of space that doesn’t feel interesting, I can paint it out, and hope that it works. But I accept the accidents or failures; it’s a case of “Fail, fail again, fail better,” as Beckett said.
The color black has so many connotations; urban life and industrialization, as well as transcendence and negation. Are you using black metaphorically?
Not exactly, 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 feel similarly.
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?
Indirectly. The paintings have forms in them, but they’re really about relationships, either in time, or in space. They’re about the disjunction of different spaces and different moments and how these impact emotionally, and the implications of this intellectually, and how it might factor in a world view. But these issues arise because of the painting, rather than the other way around.
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 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, and they surprise me. The relationships they establish and the resonance of the day-to-day world of abstract ideas are also very interesting. The issues come through the painting. They produce a philosophical position and so also reflect one.
Is it important to you that there be a feeling of urgency in your work?
It seems necessary. It’s how the paintings feel. With a different desire they’d be decorative.
They’d be passive. 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 there’s an urgency also.
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?
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.
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, without relying on transcendence or a narrative. They’re pragmatic in their making, and they inspired me early on. I found myself returning to something that has a relationship to those paintings without being imitative, or admiring. My current paintings actually feel like a critique of his work, in the sense in those early black paintings, he wanted to move space out of the paintings evenly, and I would like space to be in the painting unevenly.
How does writing about art affect your practice?
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. 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 like Blinky Palermo and Mary Heilmann. Their work was important to me and it needed more than just some facts reiterated about the work for the audience.
Tell me what are you reading at the moment?
The collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop; I’m always returning to Proust, and Light Years (1975) by James Salter. I’m reading this last one particularly slowly because I like it so much. His writing is so beautiful, and there’s something about the style that’s moving and provocative. Economical, but also endlessly sensual and thoughtful.