I met David Rhodes (b. 1955, Manchester, UK) in a Greenwich Village loft where his black and white paintings, both large and small, leaned against walls and were propped on all bookshelves and tabletops. The three largest were about to be packed up and sent to Hionas Gallery for “Between the Days,” his solo show that opened last night and runs through June 25. Rhodes is a thoughtful, deliberate painter who also writes–primarily catalogue essays and regular reviews for for The Brooklyn Rail. We talked about vertical lines, the v-shape, the color black, writing about art, and the painting experience in terms of both making and looking.
[Image at top: David Rhodes, 2016, acrylic on raw canvas, large-scale.]
Two Coats of Paint: Is this your studio…?
David Rhodes: Yes and no. I’m storing paintings, but I’ve also made these large works here. This is something that I’ve found possible because I’ve been in and out of different studios for a couple years. I’ve lived in different cities.
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. It seems to be a case of absorbing something from whichever place I’ve been, but it may not seem obvious at the time. It’s not a reflection of the place in literal terms, but it’s something about being on the move and being in different environments. Also in some cases returning to the same ones, Barcelona and New York for example.
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 kinds of space. The rhythm involved and the depth of the space were limited compared to the way the paintings have gone. Now all the off vertical lines have multiplied and they don’t function so much as drawing on a surface, in consequence there’s a much more illusionistic space together with this drawing.
TCOP: Now connection is implied, but they don’t actually connect.
DR: There’s a lot of implied real space, real world space. In a way they are like diagrams in the same way that a Matisse painting could be a diagram for elements of real space, but of course the way those spaces connect in a painting don’t have to be as we see them. They become a sequence of imagined spaces. Just as encountering an architectural space, it’s a sequence that becomes an aspect of memory as we move through it. That’s possible simultaneously in a painting.
TCOP: At what point did you limit your palette to black?
DR: Colors all have very difference resonances in different cultures, but I’m working within the tradition of Western painting. I’m interested in the cultural associations for black, but that isn’t central to the paintings.
TCOP: Pollock’s paintings from the late 1940s and DeKooning’s black enamels from the same period. Have you given any thought to Vantablack, the black that Anish Kapoor just patented?
DR: No (laughs).
TCOP: What would happen if you made these paintings in, say, dark blue?
DR: Something very different! Using black is still about light, and structure, color is another story, a different complexity.
TCOP: You mask out lines and then paint with acrylic paint on raw canvas, so the lines are simply the unpainted canvas.
DR: Yes. The painting is made in sections with vertical divisions. So each time there is a vertical division I tape it off. My actual experience of making the painting is very gestural, but that’s not visible in the end.
TCOP: Ultimately, though, you want the paint to look flat—no thick paint, no obvious marks.
DR: Yes, I haven’t intended to use the mark or the gesture as a dramatic element. The effect is a consequence of a series of responses, so when the paint captures light, the unevenness of the surface is revealed. To me it’s full of events, incidents. But of course the first experience of the painting is that it’s quite diagrammatic. It’s not a particularly painterly experience. The surfaces are matter of fact, but not even and consistent in a very deliberate way. There is not a desire to exclude the particularities of the paint.
TCOP: But on the spectrum of the diagrammatic, these are very painterly.
DR: I use the term “diagram” not because of the economy of their making, it seems to me that painting can be seen as a model in relation to real world experience.
TCOP: Are these paintings related to specific experiences or just the experience of making the painting?
DR: They come through the experience of making, but this isn’t isolated from the rest of life. I make the paintings quickly, so that I can look at them as a viewer, they surprise me. They aren’t planned. Its not about lengthy reflection, it’s more about responsiveness to each part of the painting as I move across the canvas. The painting begins on the left side usually, and as I work, the area to the right is still empty.
TCOP: Is the process always the same? Would you ever start from the right side or the middle? Are you open to changing the process?
DR: Sure. So far within the constraints, which I find allows for a great deal of freedom. It exposes the differences within the repetitive process. If there were more change from painting to painting, for me it would be a lot less interesting. It’s the differences within the same process that make enormous difference from one painting to the next.
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 or as a source of light. Historically. I’ve always been interested in Giotto’s use of black or Velasquez’s. Matisse reintroduced black in a radical way, as a different kind of light. I use carbon black. I don’t want the black to be obviously cool or warm. I often use paint manufactured in the city or country where I’ve been living and working, so while I’m here in New York I’m using Golden.
TCOP: Using local materials is also a nod to tradition. In the old days people used the pigments found in their community.
DR: Yes, I suppose you’re right. I paint on canvas, which is bought locally. 15-lbs per square inch canvas has enough surface, a clear tactility. The painted areas appear less tactile than the raw canvas and I enjoy that contradiction. The physicality of the painting comes from the material that the paint is applied to rather than the amount of paint
TCOP: Which contemporary painters interest you?
DR: Many. Juan Uslé for example, he has a great show at Cheim & Read right now, also Carmen Herrera who has a great show at Lisson. Helmut Federle, Pierre Soulange, Bernard Piffaretti, Christopher Wool and Mary Heilmann.
TCOP: You are fond of French and German abstract painters.
DR: Yes. When I moved to Berlin in 2003 it was partly because I had always been interested in post-war European and American abstract painting. There is not such a strong tradition of Modernism in visual art in London, it never became central to the culture as it did in New York. Before the second WW there was a Modernist tradition in much of Europe, its very complicated after this. The 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 vast contrasts between various places because of the context of their history.
TCOP: You’re very articulate about your work, perhaps because you are a writer…? Tell me about your relationship to writing. When did you begin to write about art?
DR: I did a little writing in the 1980s. I helped found a magazine with some other artists. We published it in reaction to ideas about abstraction being over, in London at the time the attitude to abstraction was derisory. Then while I was living in Berlin John Yau encouraged me to write reviews from that city, he was the art editor at The Brooklyn Rail. I still write something for The Rail every month. I write for David Cohen’s artcritical and The Journal of Contemporary Painting an academic journal in the U.K. I’ve also written reviews for Artforum thanks to Barry Schwabsky. Without the writers I’ve just mentioned I wouldn’t be doing any writing myself. Now it’s a way of thinking, the act of writing produces thoughts I don’t have without the process of putting together words.
TCOP: 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?
DR: There is openness in the current situation; it’s one way of making a painting among others. But to me it’s allowed a way of painting that I couldn’t do in another way. There’s something about the involvement one can have with chance and repetition, the throw of the dice. I want to see what will happen in each painting. It’s like making the same painting over and over only to discover it’s not possible to make the same painting twice.
“David Rhodes: Between the Days,” Hionas Gallery, LES, New York, NY. Through June 25, 2016.