September 1980: Ikon Gallery: Rhonda Whitehead By Sarah Kent

Working at first with watercolour sketches whose subtle washes create a sense of great depth and spaciousness, Rhonda then scales up these images and modifies them in preparation for translation into the much more physical medium of acrylic paint on canvas. Her aim is to dematerialise the surface with bands of soft colour whose differences are scarcely visible. These must be subtle enough not to draw attention to their physical presence, yet forceful enough to create, through their interaction, the sensations of space and depth. First the canvas is covered with a creamy ground, similar in colour to the watercolour paper. This hides the grain of the material and allows the surface to dissolve into a neutral field activated by the subtle nuances of the pale pinks, yellows, whites and greys. These, in turn, are veiled by ten layers of filmy white so that, suspended between neutralising fiçlds, they can appear to float freely away from the picture surface.

The bands of colour vary in width to create the illusion of curving through space and, in recent paintings, to suggest the perspective recession of architectural spaces such as the interior of a room dimly discerned in soft lighting. This interest was aroused two years ago by a mural commission for the Stoke Newington Community Centre, which is housed in a Victorian factory building. The community wanted to decorate their outside wall, preferably with a countryside scene. But when the proposals were submitted, they chose an abstract design which emphasized the arches of the factory’s doors and windows by means of false shadows in bright, primary colours.

Rhonda Whitehead enjoys the challenge of working to commission and welcomes the relief it offers from the isolation of the studio. This was her second mural project, and it is interesting to see just how much the murals spark off ideas in the paintings, although for the artist, there is no conscious connection. A commission in 1972 to decorate a 90 foot long subway in Muswell Hill was carried out, for example, with bands of colour painted onto a neutral ground, three years before these studio paintings were begun. Red, blue, yellow and green strips ran along both walls and ceiling to dramatize the perspective recession of the tunnel. But, whereas the murals activate actual architectural spaces, the studio paintings, of course, create imaginary space and depth.

Recently, landscape has also begun to play an important role as a source of images and ideas, especially the~ flat countryside and huge skies of Norfolk. Greens and blues have crept into the paintings as references to the landscape and the bands of colour have been replaced by overlapping planes, which seem to dematerialise and shimmer more like a mist of coloured light than a painted surface.

Photographs taken recently during trips to the Norfolk Broads have, for instance, provided ideas for future paintings, while the artist is currently in the process of enlarging and abstracting from watercolours made of the Norfolk landscape for translation into paintings.