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EXHIBITION Carol Rhodes

Landmark paintings and drawings of human impact on the natural landscape by staunch political activist

THIS free exhibition at London’s Alison Jacques Gallery is a much-needed and timely reminder of the quality and urgent relevance of the work of Edinburgh-born Carol Rhodes, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art in the turbulent late-1970s.

It dovetails with the heightened awareness of, and campaigning about, the environmental threats posed by overexploitation of natural resources.

Rhodes did not reside, as many would, in an ivory tower. She found her place in social activism, radical feminism, campaigns for disarmament, gay rights and social justice campaigns.

She was a regular at Reclaim the Night demonstrations, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, protests against nuclear-armed submarines at the naval base on the Clyde and she co-founded the Glasgow Free University with the writers Alasdair Gray and James Kelman.

In 1990, after years of activism, Rhodes returned to the Glasgow School of Art to teach and started painting again. Working in a small studio at the Tramway art centre in the city, she developed her distinctive aerial-view perspective of topographic landscapes altered by human intervention.

The bird’s eye view afforded her a scale to the magnitude of transformation that could not otherwise be revealed.

They would range from the apparent harmonious allure of Surface Mine, Road and Valley or Sea and Motorway to the contrast of the menacingly unsettling River, Roads or Coal. The latter two could be interpreted as a dire warning of environmental transformation that will be apocalyptic in its consequences.  

Rhodes’s hidden areas or left-over land of industrial estates, unpopulated margins of urban scapes, have an accusatory tone that surely resonates with contemporary activists and campaigners. Her Earth is wounded.

Her sources were aerial photographs, which she often took herself, along with books on geography, geology, industrial archaeology and urban planning. They informed and guided an intuitive but savvy process of composition and a reduced and subtly muted monochromatic palette delivered with confident brush strokes.

She once said that “the impetus is to create a mood, a temperature, a puzzle,” establishing a “spatial egalitarianism, [by] giving everything a sort of equal status” and doing away with the horizon or foreground.

Rhodes was ahead of her time when signalling environmental concerns that is now, as it was then, political to the core. This stance informed the best of her work. Tellingly, she spoke of her landscapes as self-portraits and it was said that she put “viewers in the position of perpetrators, or at least consenting parties.”

In 2013 she learned she had motor neurone disease and the following year became wheelchair-bound. She died in 2018 aged 59, after a life well-lived if all too brief.

Runs April 30-May 29, opening times and access: alisonjacquesgallery.com

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