“The places I find myself interested in are ones that service other places, like refineries, electricity generators, processing plants and waste areas. Generally they are hidden areas, one way or another.”
The Scottish artist Carol Rhodes, who died in 2018, created a body of work that’s of interest to anyone involved in the crossover area of nature writing / landscape punk / weird Britain.
Rhodes’s works almost exclusively depict landscapes seen from above. Typically, these are edgeland spaces: industrial estates, airports, car parks, quarries, often deliberately in ‘the middle of nowhere’: emphatically not destinations, or ‘viewpoints’. There are no horizons; everything is in the middle ground.
They manage to conform to both of Mark Fisher’s definitions of ‘weird’ and ‘eerie’, as laid out in his book The Weird and The Eerie (a book I’ve mentioned before and recommend highly). ‘Weird’ for Fisher, is “that which does not belong…something…when there should be nothing“. Conversely, ‘eerie’ is defined as “nothing…when there should be something“. These artworks are eerie through their depopulation, like ruins just after some apocalypse¹. But the post-industrial service areas that are depicted are, in their own way, elements of the weird.
In Rhodes’s paintings, the eye can’t focus on detail. Because from a distance they look like photographs, you think that if you lean in closer the details should become sharper and reveal more, but they don’t.
In fact, the longer you look the odder (weirder) they become. Roads bifurcate in ways that would be pointless in real life, or merge to create unusually broad carriageways, or just end, or just begin.
The first of her work that I saw was Industrial Belt from 2006 (top) in the Sottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I’d never heard of her before, and wanted immediately to see more of her work. The shop had an exhibition catalogue from 2007 for a ridiculous knock-down price of 60p: yes, 60p.
There’s a good essay in it by Tom Lubbock which tries to analyse the strangeness – the uncanniness – of Rhodes’s work.
“[The landscapes don’t] look wrong or out of place. They seem to stand for something, both particular and familiar. And surely you could name them, if need be. What appeared to be obvious, turns out, on a second look, to be elusive…you know the kind of thing…but as it happens, not the thing itself”
He also captures what it is about them that can be described as eerie:
“often a sadness is evoked, even a menace, to do with the unhomeliness of the views, the isolation of the few domestic buildings”
Here we have that sense of emptiness, of a presence that should be there, but isn’t. And there is weirdness, at the same time. Merlin James, in another article, notes that Rhodes’s landscapes
“are not quite as one would expect…hillocks may be too regularly domed, the curve of a motorway not smooth enough“
The wrongness of these vistas comes in part from her representation of (in James’s words) “things that…don’t have known, fixed properties and morphology”. To take an example, see the Ordnance Survey map of central Cornwall’s chalk-mining district, for instance. These areas are virtually unmappable, at least in our standard, official cartographic language.
These landscapes cannot be objectively mapped, but can any landscape? A map is only a representation, an abstraction that utilises commonly-agreed symbols to give an indication of an area’s physical dimensions insofar as those symbols are significant to the observer. As Lubbock says,
“we should not suppose that a landscape is something that exists outside us. It is a devised scenario that we impose upon our experience.”
Rhodes herself agreed:
“It’s not as if the view exists first, and then I choose it and give it a treatment. It’s more that the reality depicted only comes into existence with the making of the painting².”
Like descriptions in works of the nouveau roman, these are not representational: the landscape may contain ostensibly “real” elements, but only exists on canvas.
I mentioned Weird Britain in my intro. Merlin James argues that:
“the clumps of trees and the grassy bumps and mounds in Rhodes’s scenes are not – though they parody them – ancient sites of rite and magic as celebrated, for example, in Paul Nash”
I’d disagree. The scenes that Rhodes chooses to depict are significant to our post-industrial, service-sector age. These spaces are key sites of modernity; in an age when Capital occupies the place once taken by God, are these sites – dedicated to the flow and maintenance of Capital’s world – not sacred in their own way?
¹ The Boards of Canada album Tomorrow’s Harvest is the ideal soundtrack to studying Rhodes’s paintings.
Carol Rhodes (National Galleries of Scotland, 2007):
- Lubbock, Tom “Making It Up”
- James, Merlin “Earth/Body/Painting”
Fisher, Mark: The Weird and The Eerie (Repeater, 2016)