From the 1990s onwards the artist Carol Rhodes, who has died aged 59 from motor neurone disease, created in her paintings a unique style of landscape, both traditionally beautiful and unsettling in subject. She painted imaginary places, seen from some near but airborne altitude, as if from a balloon or from the window of a plane approaching an airport – close enough to show large objects but too far away for much detail. These new places are convincing topographically and show an elegant pictorial structure, but are elusive, with nothing in them seeming at all clear.
They are also complex in design, edgy and disturbingly unreal, however familiar they might feel. The colours are typically murky, as much like a sickly skin as the surface of the Earth, sometimes suggesting a close view of abrasions on a body. Rhodes said that sometimes the pictures began with a choice of colours, apparently allowing her to find the pictorial activity that could be manipulated within that harmonic range.
These paintings appeared to have come almost from nowhere, with no lead-in from similar work, as, after graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in 1982, Rhodes had spent the next eight years not in painting but in art curating and teaching,.
She was born in Edinburgh, although her parents lived in India, where her father, William Rhodes, was a missionary for the Church of Scotland. Carol’s mother, Helen (nee McDonald), returned to Scotland only for her daughter’s birth, then rejoined the family at a new posting at Serampore college near Kolkata. Carol grew up in Bengal, going to Woodstock school at the Himalayan hill station of Landour.
When she was 16, the family moved briefly to Sussex and then to Scotland, where Carol’s father took on a parish in Dumfries. In 1977 she went to the Glasgow School of Art. Her time there coincided with a burst of energetic painting by a new generation of “Glasgow Boys”, who tackled forceful subjects with big, unruly and centrifugal paintings – the opposite of what her own painting was to become. Possibly the male bravado of that time strengthened her decision to turn her back on painting and to move into education instead.
After her studies Rhodes taught art at the Glasgow Women’s Centre and then the Glasgow Free University, before becoming an organiser at the Transmission gallery in Glasgow, an assistant at the Third Eye Centre and Tramway galleries in the city, and lending her support to the anti-nuclear protesters at Greenham Common.
After almost a decade away from painting, she decided to return to her art. She taught at Glasgow School of Art in the mid-90s, taking on a studio in the school’s main building. She exhibited first in 1994 in Glasgow and Edinburgh, then notably at the group show The Persistence of Painting at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. From 1998 she exhibited with a London dealer, Andrew Mummery, and from the following year onwards with Brent Sikkema in New York.
Around this time she met the artist and writer Merlin James, who had written about her work, and they later married. At their Glasgow home overlooking the Clyde they converted rooms into galleries, showing both older and contemporary artists including Adrian Morris.
Partly what was original about Rhodes’ paintings was their moral status, as the viewer was unavoidably complicit in scenes that appeared at first to be harmless but which also illustrated an assault on the Earth through industrial ravage or development, seen from above, as from some polluting aeroplane. This put the viewers in the position of perpetrators, or at least consenting parties. Her landscapes were deceptive, in various linked ways, and had multiple associations.
The surfaces were brushed fluently, as if by Whistler or William Nicholson, but in fact the designs were planned in careful drawings, copied on to her painting board to make compositions that were just slightly out of balance. The look of the places she painted was often put together from aerial photographs that she had taken herself. While her paintings changed over the years from simple to more complicated designs, as her skills developed she was able to essay a balance between the plausible and provocative.
Two books have been published on her work: the first the catalogue of her solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2007-08, with essays by Tom Lubbock and Merlin James, and the second edited by Mummery (2018).
Carol is survived by Merlin, a son, Hamish, from a previous relationship with the artist Richard Walker, and her mother.
• Carol Mary Rhodes, artist, born 7 April 1959; died 4 December 2018
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