August 1983 New work by Rhonda Whitehead

Paton Gallery, Covent Garden, London

Reviewed by Monica Petzal

Stepping outside Rhonda Whitehead’s Isolated cottage at lngham In the heart of the Norfolk countryside there are several distinct views. To the front there is lush Pastureland, re-sown every five years, and used for grazing cattle. Beyond this running round two sides of the house and creating a fixed horizon is a dyke, thick with reeds end waterlillies. To the rear, beyond the protected garden, lies unused pastureland, overgrown with broom bushes. To the right of this stretch fields of wheat end barley, at this time ripe end golden and shortly to be harvested. A scene which embodies both natures own time scale and man’s intervention harnessing the land for his own needs, employing lengthy and arduous processes for It to yield benefit, dependent and at the mercy of the elements and the seasons.

Rhonda Whitehead’s new paintings seem analogous to this experience, both as a result of her working processes and the complex relationship between time end subject matter built Into the work.

Besides walking end riding In this strange and  desolate fiat countryside which has been her home for the past seven years, Whitehead goes out to capture specific Ideas with a camera and zoom lens. The more typically arable farmland around Barton Turf and Pennygate. a few miles from lngham, has been a favorite territory. On these walks she takes numerous colour end black and white photographs, the latter of which she enlarges to 13” x 20”.  The photographs are all details, both nature’s own patterns and the structured impositions of labour. The dead wisps of grass emerging from the edge of a shallow broad, the ragged piles of straw left after the harvest, the man-made geometry of rakes and furrows stretching endlessly Into the horizon. There Is distance and space In these images, but they are confined so as to exclude a specific sense of place.

The photography Is a structured aid to her memory and experience of the land and determines the underlying structure of the finished work. They serve as sketches on which she works out further her Ideas, colouring and drawing on top of them. From this she moves on to Al size working drawings done mainly In watercolour, a medium chosen for its smooth and delicate fluidity, occasionally working on top with the more Intense colour of chalk pastel.

The combination of the compositional structure derived from the photographs and the painstaking subtle building-up of a pale surface with washes and individual small marks is characteristic of both the watercolours and the final acrylic paintings, although they read very differently.

The watercolours with their delicate sepia, yellow, grey and blue bands of colour, with areas often left unpainted are Intimate In scale fresh and direct. The acrylic paintings are altogether larger and bolder with smooth, In areas Imperceptibly made, surfaces opening up spacious horizons. Suffused with light and delicate yet vibrant tonal colour, their subtle evidence of working process (which Is of ten over a year) Is balanced by the abstracted Imagery Which has a timeless sense of land and space.