Placing the Art of Pauline Rhodes

TONY GREEN

There are two kinds of location where Pauline Rhodes works: one kind is outdoors, usually in isolated seemingly uninhabited land, placing rods and other materials there, things she has brought with her. She photographs them and then removes them. The other kind is indoors, with similar materials in buildings, often in art galleries. The practical difference is how much can be conveniently transported. The indoor pieces are fuller in materials, more elaborate. The outdoor pieces are usually seen only by the artist. Everyone else depends entirely on the photographic record to see what she has done. When exhibited the photographs tend to take on the character of artworks, compositions of land and the objects placed there. She feels they work best when shown as sequences of slides.

PAULINE RHODES Brighton Beach 1988

All her work, indoors and outdoors, takes off from the perceived character of a place, from the enclosure of a building or the unbounded land, sea and sky. What then occurs is a process of complementing the place with whatever is set up within its spaces. The relation of perceiver with the perceived is the central issue. This, however, is a continuous uninterrupted living process, of which both the indoor pieces and the outdoor pieces are frozen moments.

The works all modify the feeling of space and time. Rhodes' sculptural treatment of space has its own terminology. She calls an effect of an extension of space an extensum; in contrast, she calls an intensification of space, an intensum. Many of the outdoor works are about extensions of space, while the indoors works may be either intensums, or extensums or a combination of both.

Critical attention has specially dwelt over the past 30 years on the meditation of the outdoor works on its special terrain, Canterbury. The impermanence and open-ended process of the work has attracted feminist criticism, because these values can be seen, especially in the outdoor works, as refusal of a colonizing mastery over the land. But there is more to be said about her consistently active and thoughtful art.

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Christina Barton's recent book, Ground/Work: The Art of Pauline Rhodes(1) sets out to ensure that this impermanent body of work is not forgotten.. Before this book there were numerous comments on Rhodes' work, embedded in reviews, in essays and in two general books on New Zealand art, but there was no overview.(2)

PAULINE RHODES Botanic Gardens, Sydney 1984

Barton's monograph is a gathering of documents, preceded by three essays. Barton's argues for a place in history of Rhodes' work. The work, in her account, is founded in the 1960s and 1970s transformation of art practices, 'which signalled a rejection of the forms and encoded values of modernism', turning instead to 'conceptual, time-based and site-specific modes' in order 'to focus on the materiality of art, on process, context, questions of meaning, problems of representation, and the nature of the artist and the nature of the viewer as sentient beings and as social subjects'. In this transformation first effected in the USA and in Europe in the 1960s 'the gallery and museum were challenged as ideological instruments, complicit in the separation of art from lived experience and alienating to artists and audiences'.(3) Rhodes' installation work begins about a decade later, in the late 1970s.

PAULINE RHODES Sea Pool 1991

Of the other two essays, one, by Geoff Parks develops a sympathetic view of the outdoors work, with its understanding of it as 'briefly inserted in nature's wildness, as symbols of the destructive ephemerality of our human presence'. The other essay, by Sarah Treadwell, is a richly detailed reading of one of the indoor works, Stains and Losses (CSA Gallery, 1996). Its central theme is a speculation on the relation of Rhodes' work to an architecture in which 'the space mimics, and perhaps parodies, architectural conditions of the domestic and the feminine'.

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Whatever the possible links with 1960s art in the USA and Britain, Rhodes was not the only artist, nor was she the only woman artist, working with installation in New Zealand from the 1970s onwards. Many of them, like Rhodes, were extending possibilities of either painting or sculpture.

Barbara Strathdee reviewing the important 1982 artists' symposium at F1 in Wellington looked for 'art , produced from a stance of political consciousness' and found that 'some of the most impressive and beautiful works by women artists at the sculpture project were entirely abstract', particularly the work of Jacqueline Fraser and Pauline Rhodes.(4) Rhodes' earlier work certainly appears coolly formal. Rather than making direct statements about political issues, the artist's notes accompanying exhibitions in the 1980s are often about notions of extension and intensity, of the horizontal of the ground and vertical rods contrasting with it. They extend to what Anne Kirker called 'metaphysical statements', notions of continuity and regeneration, of identity and epistemology.

PAULINE RHODES Intensum: Stained Memories 1998
Installation at the Honeymoon Suite, Dunedin

Formal order continues to make itself felt in Rhodes' work of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with its grids and squares and its rows of rods at an angle to the horizontal. Formal as it may appear, the work could not be mistaken for modernist autonomous abstraction. It is always conditioned by the spaces in which it occurs, by its insistence on that space as an energy field, on process rather than product on irregular materials and by its ephemeral character. Notes written in February 1986, published in Splash the same year, speak of the active 'body' as central to perception. Beginning from a contrast between 'scriptural/ sculptural' the hand-written text seeks to enact what the words speak about. It begins with writing but as it proceeds it turns into freehand drawing, gestural mark rather than script.(5) Barton was prompted by this and other statements to relate Rhodes' work to existential phenomenology, especially to the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. There is a parallel in Rhodes' published notes in her concern to escape perceptions bounded by convention and language, to feel as fully as possible the actuality of her body.

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The revealing chronology in Barton's book is clearly dependent on information from the artist. It needs to be understood that Rhodes was 40 by the time her characteristic installations began to be seen in public in New Zealand. During the first 20 years of her adult life, she had been through an unusually varied series of encounters with the arts. She made pottery; she drew landscapes with Toss Woollaston; she studied traditional arts in Nigeria and made terracotta portraits there; in Britain she pursued modernist sculpture; and after travels in Europe, she studied with Tom Taylor and Leon Narbey in Christchurch, reading art theory and philosophy and, like the young artists in Auckland, she studied the new shape given the arts in the 1960s in the USA and in Europe.

Between the descriptive chronology in Barton's book and the essays which place Rhodes' work adjacent to contemporary theory, there is a gap. Into the gap comes a useful selection of fine reproductions of photos. As always with artworks, to look at them, even in reproductions is to be faced by enigmatic figures of thought. These are more elusive than usual, when represented only by documentation. The works at least, those that I have seen - have been deeply impressive, and, as Barbara Strathdee said, beautiful. Art history needs to serve not only as memory, but as celebration, and what remains of the works deserves close attention. What follows is a rough initial sketch.

It was not until 1985 that I saw any of Rhodes' installations, but I was prepared for them by reading reviews and photographs. The record shows that there were many changes from one installation to another. The early gallery installations tended to be materials laid out on the floor: shards of stone, blocks of wood, paper, and cloth impregnated with scoria slurry recur. The neutrality of the square and the grid predominate. By 1979 the materials were no longer stained by scoria, but, in contact with steel plates, by weathering. The natural processes that make these monoprint sheets though set in motion by the artist, result in effects delivered by chance. These stained sheets became almost a signature in the next decade, and widely commented on, because oxidation speaks so clearly of time and of industrial metal's decomposition.

PAULINE RHODES Toxic Gains 2000
Installation at the Physics Room, Christchurch

In the CSA gallery in May 1981 Rhodes made the first of several installations with wall-size intensums, Stained silences. These have something like the function of tapestries, soft fabric, squares of paper stained with oxidation replacing the look of cold building surfaces. A second installation in the same space in October 1981, Intensum/Extensum has but one wall covered in this way, an intensum, with a series of small free-standing stained paper panels extending outwards from it along the length of the space, an extensum. In the National Art Gallery installation of November 1981, Extensum, the sheets of oxide coloured paper became fully architectural. They made ceiling-to-floor hanging screens in front of the large columns in the room, narrowing to the width of a doorway either end of an already narrow room. Redefining a long space in this way, the two hanging screens contrived and controlled the space extended between them.

By the mid-1980s much of the installation work was on the floor, not the wall. It employed wire frames with stained paper or cloth, draped cloth, arrays of rods, standing or leaning in the space, articulating the vertical dimension. The rods were usually painted with fluorescent green paint, commonly read as the colour of new growth, but so glaringly artificial that I think of it as an industrial simulation of vegetation.

In the mid-1980s the installations were rarely gridded, more often they were suggestive of landscapes, simulated by loose varied weathered or stained materials, long twists of stained cloth (at Artspace, November 1987) and shards of stone. The constricted space of two rooms in the James Paul Gallery was occupied by a landscape of a twisting and turning concertina of stained paper, with pieces of stone anchoring bright green bowed rods.

There is a similar change in the outdoors works: earlier outdoors works are simple pointers or markers of the landscape, sometimes indications of scale, something like the small cairns built in mountainous areas by Richard Long. From 1987 the objects used were, as Barton puts it, 'more overtly symbolic and representational elements in more solid materials and structures' .

Indoors, what had begun with architectural, geometrical installations, became instead simulated irregular landscape. More recently, in 1998, they took advantage of an increasing freedom to pile up a disorder of folded or screwed up materials, rods, and cloth, without referring to the irregularity of natural forms as a raison d'ĂȘtre. In the March 2000 installation at The Physics Room, Christchurch, the heaps and tangles, the barbed wire and scattered chaos of bright green rods, honour the title, Toxic Gains, with a simulation of land covered in rubbish.

Towards the end of last year, Rhodes' installation at the Waikato Museum continued this commentary on ecological vandalism or misuse of natural resources. From the entrance could be heard the refreshing sound of fountains. These were little mechanical fountains on the slate floor of the gallery, endlessly reusing their water, spraying it into small black plastic tubs. There were loose arrays of standing plastic green and red lines, the dangling parts on the floor loosely interwoven with the black electric cords. These must be meant, I thought, for fishing rods. The rainwater from the morning's shower of rain standing in the gutters could be seen through the window, and so could the big brown river, the Waikato. In the smaller rooms, there were photos on the walls and a slide show of 160 slides, all of water, waterfalls, sea, rivers, some with added objects. It was impossible not to see the work as a comment on the serious pollution of the great river, as well as on the question of its ownership and of its appropriation as drinking water for Auckland. The broad concern is for the whole world's water.

1. This book, published by the Adam Gallery and Victoria University Press in 2002, contains an essay, chronology and a bibliography by Christina Barton, essays by Sarah Treadwell and Geoff Park, and good illustrations.
2. See Anne Kirker, New Zealand Women Artists, Reed Methuen, Auckland 1986 and Priscilla Pitts, Contemporary New Zealand Sculpture, David Bateman, Auckland 1998.
3. Barton lists her sources in endnotes. Anne Rorimer's New Art in the '60s and '70s (Thames and Hudson, London 2001) is the most recent. She also refers to well-known texts by Lucy Lippard and Rosalind Kraus.
4. Fl was an artist-organised event in a disused soft-drink factory in Wellington, 1982.
5. Splash 4, April 1986,pp. 91-98.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 107 Winter 2003