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Carol Rhodes paintings are more truthful than Google Maps

Whose view of our landscape is more authentic, Google Maps’ or Carol Rhodes’? asks Rory Olcayto

Carol Rhodes’ landscape paintings capture views as if seen from a low-flying plane, one that has just taken off or is just about to land. They show roads and canals, quarries and fields, power stations, slag heaps and car parks. Sometimes they show carefully managed estates, sometimes wild forests. The colours are pale, as if drenched by the sun or washed through by rain. And while there are no people in Rhodes’ paintings, and no sense of movement, it’s not the world of Logan’s Run: there is no apparent sign of decay and the feeling is that life goes on.

Rhodes’ brush strokes are deliberate but often what they show is just as deliberately vague - it can be difficult to fully make out the nature of what it is you are looking at. Is that landform man-made? And what is it made of? That, however, feels precisely right, because none of the landscapes are real. Instead, they are fictional reconstructions of what might have been seen had the artist flown overhead. They show things we have all seen, since the dawn of cheap air travels at least, but probably more often forget or allow to merge with other slight memories of half-glimpsed terrains seen from the air.

A new exhibition in Shoreditch gallery Mummery + Schnelle is mindful that, in historic terms, this overhead perspective is relatively new. The first manned flight was just 110 years ago. Alongside five new paintings and three preparatory pencil drawings Rhodes uses to develop her images, there is an early aerial photograph dating from 1926. It shows the site of Woodhenge in Wiltshire. This photo is significant, because such images have been instrumental in revealing ancient sites that were otherwise invisible from the ground, and led to a new way of looking at, and thinking about, the history and meaning of landscape.

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The late (great) Tom Lubbock described Rhodes’ paintings as ‘composite views, assembled from miscellaneous images of real terrain’ and assigns them a formal genre of their own: the out-of-town capriccio (a type of townscape in which real buildings are combined with imaginary ones, or are shown with their locations rearranged, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Art).

Rhodes lives and works in Glasgow, but she spent most of her childhood in Bengal, India. In the 70s and 80s she studied at the Glasgow School of Art. She first came to prominence in the 90s and in 2007 the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh presented a survey exhibition of her paintings, leading critics to regard her as one of Britain’s finest contemporary painters.

Rhodes’ paintings feel more vital than ever today. Detailed landscape maps have become commonplace following the advent of Google Maps and other similar services. (How good would it be to find Google Maps hijacked by Rhodes for a day?) You might even argue that the axonometric view and blurry graphics of Apple’s rival iPhone map tool more closely fits Rhodes’ viewpoint than one from an aeroplane. There’s even a link between these technologies and Rhodes’ art in matters of authenticity. Famously, when Apple launched its maps tool, much of the data was ‘wrong’, with items and locations transposed, misnamed or incorrectly rendered. Apple’s maps were just as fictional as Rhodes’ painted canvases, some of which, incidentally, are not much bigger than an iPad. Yet, because of their carefully thought-through compositions, their use of forms and details we are all familiar with, and the nagging sense that you’ve seen what Rhodes has conjured somewhere before, maybe her paintings are the more truthful representations of *now*.

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