David Rhodes: "Nocturnes", Some Walls, Oakland

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!"[1]

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.

My attention shifted to the road itself: a straight path, the multiple lanes of blacktop and white lines flickering by, cars moving side by side and shifting across lanes, threads of movement, speeding and slowing, the possibility of exits and on-ramps, narrowing in the distance, the inevitable splitting of directions and departures, the buzz of layers of movement, shifting space, various trajectories: road to Rhodes.

And more: that moment, probably just a few seconds at 55 MPH, opened me to consider something else: on the radio played a favorite Sunday afternoon program, and just then a bluegrass track played featuring guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bass. That’s a lot of strings; total it up: four + five + four + eight + four = twenty five, all together a lot of vibrating and resonance, harmony and rhythm, interweaving and synchronizing. The sound of the strings cross each other, going higher or lower, supporting each other, drawing each other out, competing and aligning; I "saw" for a moment a sound that looked like a Rhodes painting.

Later…

Let’s play a game. I thought of this game in an instant when, as I sat down to write, I put on Rubber Soul with the original tracking order, not the American release.[2]

The game is called, "Which Beatles song sounds most like how a particular artist’s paintings look?"

It works like this: Strawberry Fields Forever sounds like a 1960’s de Kooning clam digger. Pollock’s Blue Poles looks like how Birthday sounds. Glass Onion sounds like a vitrine by Paul Thek. A late Joan Mitchell looks like Tomorrow Never Knows. Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross is the sound of Taxman ("…if my work were properly understood, it would be the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism"). Philip Guston and Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? Thomas Nozkowski and I Dig a Pony. Rocky Raccoon is Spiral Jetty. A giant Bourgeois spider is I’m So Tired. Just to name a few off the top of my head. Try it and get your own results.

As the first notes of Drive My Car spun out of the speakers I instantly thought of David Rhodes’s recent work.

In Rhodes’s images there are hints of signage, design, planning, mapping, traffic, interchanges, grains, wedging, fitting, each which their own conditions of place and space, layers or flatness: compact, energetic, open and closed, pressed and stacked, fitted and busting out, the world seeping in, the world beyond the painting, all struggling at the edges of the the conventional, containing rectangle.

David Rhodes’s work prior to that with the reduced palette considered here, is rich in color, with repeated circular and oval shapes, some solid and some like thick rubber bands, or squares with rounded corners. Some solid shapes are independent of each other, others overlap, or are cut into sections and occupy larger areas of the canvas. The acrylic-painted shapes may be layered in a glaze effect, making new color where they cross each other. In other works, ovals of the same color touch and form a flat, planar, silhouette image. The rubber band or rounded squares loop, cross, and circle over each other, suggesting a shallow space.

In all of this the circular shape or loop is a record of the artist’s bodily movement; the arm and elbow naturally extends out to make a circular motion. In these simple, natural, body-based motifs the artist exercises several virtues, which become his subject and make his meaning: no hesitation; remain playful; color is to be used freely; don’t fear decoration; repetition is good; working for the sake of working is good; "abstraction" is a real thing; making and seeing is essential to the pulse of life.

Rhodes’s recent work, all untitled, comprises a body of mostly black, white, and sometimes gray with occasional color, chevron-like paintings that have occupied him for the past few years. Earlier works used perhaps a more standard, wider-banded chevron motif (say, the Kenneth Noland-like image, or even the oil company logo, that comes to mind when you hear or read "chevron"). The current pieces are more black than anything else, across which thinner, light bands range, inverting and shifting the chevron to three successeively alternating bands of steep angles, pushing the "V" or its inverted form to "N." Variously thin, taped, near-verticals, under which paint bleeds, make soft-edged lines that zip and zag, running up and down, not quite matching or aligning.

A feeling of casualness and speed result from the artist’s focus and decisiveness at play during the work’s making. Directions of line that are rhythmic and balanced may actually be random; the artist works to determine an effect, but only really knows a procedural consequence once the tape is removed. Using a relatively narrow array of components is refreshing, eye-opening, and validates the sensation of making and seeing. Images range from dense to open; the pace and angles of lines build a range of structures, from stable to in-motion to unsteady, which encourages glimpsing, tracking, and hard looking.

Chris Ashley
Oakland, CA
February 2013

[1] Ragon, Michel. Poliakoff. Golden Griffin Books, Arts, Inc., New York City. The Pocket Museum. Edited by Georges Fall. 1958.

[2] The Beatles. Rubber Soul. Capitol Records. 1966. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_soul