Some paintings take a long time to grow, to emerge from the experience which inspired them. Rhonda Whitehead had lived in Norfolk or nearby for ten years before it became the subject of her paintings. Since then she has absorbed the knowledge of that strange, flat landscape where nothing intervenes between soil and sky, and where the grey light renders colour so much more intensely than sunshine and has transposed it into paintings so idiosyncratic that it is difficult to believe that she has ever worked in any other way.
In fact like many artists of her generation, her early work was minimalist: precisely planned, kinetic sculptures incorporating plastic tubing, which required a close adherence to working drawings. Yet though the appearance of the work has changed radically, her preoccupation with the interactions of colour and structure have remained constant.
There is a way of interpreting landscape – Durer’s Large Piece of Turf is in its lineage – which scrutinises a tiny area and re-presents it as a paradigm of the whole. The artist seems, as in minimalist work, to be absent in any affective sense, yet such work can only emerge from an intense understanding of place. There is a tension between this understanding and the artist’s self – negation from the act of painting. Because of her technique, she is in a sense absent from the record of her relationship with the countryside. She uses thin acrylic and oils seldom putting the paint on with a brush, preferring to apply overlays of colour with a sponge leaving a smooth surface in which the colour is unmediated by texture or by traces of the artist’s actions. Some paintings have a vanishing-point, a terminus, just outside the picture area. Many are set on a diagonal, more dynamic than an orthogonal arrangement. There is a sense of movement towards an unlimited space beyond the picture area, formed by colour graduated from green to gold or blazing in scarlets, a counterpart to those vast East Anglian skies. Yet the paintings are all tranpositions of a material existence.
For a painter, photography can play any role from aide-memoire to becoming physically part of the picture. For Rhonda photography provides a datum; it indicates pattern, scale, a range of colour onto which she superimposes an imaginative process, an ordering eye. The photograph also sets limits not to be transgressed. Within a single frame the area of a painting is defined, rather than simply recorded, thus it establishes the data from which the painting is made.
From a photograph she makes ‘working drawings’ in watercolour and oils in which she works out the relationships of colours and spaces, omitting certain aspects, emphasising others, but never inventing what is not already present. Rather she extracts, or she will take the long streaks of a cloud formation more vivid than its neighbours and render them in complementary pinks and azures.
Although her work is a process of abstraction, Rhonda’s relationship with the countryside in which she lives is a practical one. With the threat posed to the old common lands of East Anglia by large scale drainage schemes, conservation has become a major preoccupation. From involvement with a group which sought to defend an area of wetland against a property developer have come the latest subjects of her painting, the broads and wetlands.
These paintings refer to the patterns of clouds and their reflections in the waters of the marshlands. Sometimes, looking into clear water, reflected images conceal the real forms below the surface, denying depth and identity so that the space we see is ambiguous. Such an uncertainty is a characteristic of these paintings in which areas of colour float across the surface. They seem to be arbitrary in their arrangement as there is no real structure in sky and water comparable to the stasis of field patterns.
They present a sense of tensions forming space; tensions which are produced by the push and pull of opposed colours, yellow and blue, purple and yellow, gold and green. As we watch, the transparent shapes swell and recede, darken and lighten. These are evasive painting, they alter suddenly and cannot be definitively reproduced because they work in the same way as natural light and colour: they are never still. Their arrangement is established initially from the patterns within photographs and then by the exigencies of colour itself. It is the least arbitrary area of painting, subject to rigourous physical laws. Rhonda teaches colour theory and the writings of Chevreul, Itten and Albers have provided a rationale for the way she uses it in painting. The artist investigates its shifting relationships rather than any fixed condition, with methods and results as diverse as colour itself.
The Australia Series is the result of an extensive journey in the outback of Australia in 1996. The warm brown solidity of these paintings is a startling contrast to the cool, transparent, aqueous quality of earlier work. They reveal the fabric and structure of an immensely ancient landscape, little touched by human intervention. Whereas the Norfolk field paintings were concerned with the evanescent patterns left on the surface by farmers, if there are patterns in the Australian canvases, they are those of wind-scouring, vestigial vegetation and rocky outcrops.
As always, the location of both the artist and the viewer relative to the canvas is ambiguous: are we looking at a close up detail of a huge rock or at the whole towering cliff-face? In either case, the detail is a metonym for the entire landscape and we are as aware of its immensity in the tiny paintings of this series as in the dramatic large canvases. There are also drawings in this series, with fine lines and light, unobtrusive colour, which pull viewers into a close up scrutiny and situate them at the centre of the image.
Rhonda Whitehead’s paintings have often been called ‘delicate’ It is a description which denies both the strength of their colour and their structuring, a legacy of the first minimalist works. It is one that she has conclusively denied with the Australia series, though perhaps – paradoxically – only a painter obsessed with water and its infinite changeability could so eloquently have conveyed the ancient aridity of a Landscape scorched back to bare, immutable rock.