Rhonda Whitehead: ‘Nature becoming’
Nature is the source for each of these paintings by Rhonda Whitehead. Working as she has in the wetlands in Norfolk the Waveney Valley and the River Bure, the Northern Territory and the Barrier Reef in Australia and more recently in Europe.
She avoids trapping the painting into the documentary or the pure painterly abstract mode. And we perceive patterns, subtle shifts in shapes, as if physical bodily movement was actively altering the perspective on the paintings. Ephemera embodied as water, or reeds, or surfaces or life forms we do not even consciously recognize, become a painted calligraphy in and of an expression of joyous relation to nature.
Light and colour bring a unity to these compositions, the shapes and forms could be biological or an architecture drawn from nature, and they appear to be in a shifting and unstable horizon, indeed on the flatland of the painterly surface. Whitehead brings a sense of action in and upon the surface that re-naturizes things instead of de-naturizing them as Jackson Pollock and others did in the post- war era. Whitehead recognizes that art is a manifestation of our place in nature and not a way of segregating us from nature.
An absence of persona heightens the tension in these paintings, as if the artist were a silent participant, or observer, catalyzing our vision.
Whether in a microcosmic scale within nature or the actions of nature on the human built landscape, we find an evolution of the language of form here. Bio-forms or surface striations evolve into a visual biography of the many continuous landscapes, the visual and vernacular surfaces of experience. This is continuity in microcosm, or extended as scale in Whitehead’s visual painted environments.
There is immediacy to these paintings. They realize the dissolution of form, the reformation of form, the formlessness of form, and the structures inherent in apparently formless surfaces scenarios in nature and the built environment.
Shapes thin into pure atmosphere, something less than perceptible that challenges our consciousness, and perceptual faculty. These paintings are accents of a place distilled, as through a visual screen, much as what Georgia O’ Keefe once achieved more literally, with her landscape details in New Mexico. There is a fragile, fleeting sense of structure, less contained than expository in these recent paintings..
What is interesting with Rhonda Whitehead’s paintings is the way she manages to develop a language without falling prey to style, to the liturgy of modernist abstraction or indeed traditional figuration. Instead we witness paintings that are very much about the phenomena of life, physical phenomena – visual and colourful – revealing patterns, surfaces that are as marked and ambiguous as nature’s chaotic, yet quietly integrative and biotic processes.
Other works recall the eroded walls of buildings; Whitehead’s painterly response awakens our interest in all manner of physical and climatic exchanges we read on the surfaces of buildings. These are non-places, evocative surfaces experiences, with cadence, a history and cues stemming from hidden subtly changing worlds. It is as if the artist were capturing the mind that exists in all matter.
Rhonda Whitehead’s paintings remind us that nature is the art of which we are part.
John K. Grande.
John Grande’s Art Nature Dialogues: Interviews with Environmental Artists was published by SUNY press, New York in 2004. Grande’s latest book Dialogues in Diversity: Art from Marginal to Mainstream is now from Pari Publishing in Italy