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Prints by Peter Rhoades
Prints by Peter Rhoades – A Retrospective
27 May — 24 June
Christ Church Picture Gallery
Prints by Peter Rhoades – A Retrospective is a sophisticated reminder of how picture-making can be both beautiful and thought-provoking. No escapism here from contemporary Britain, from political dissatisfaction, nor, most poignantly, from Murdoch and the Leveson Inquiry. Amongst the resident old masters of the Picture Gallery, this small show of printmaking engages, ironizes, and questions its ugly cousin, the mass media.
The exhibition is made up of twenty-one screen prints, selected from what Rhoades describes as the ‘middle period’ of his career, from the late 1970s through to 1990 – when Rhoades was a lecturer in printmaking at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. Trained as a painter, Rhoades discovered screen printing during the 1960s, when it was favoured by propaganda artists amongst the student protest movements in Paris and London. At that time, Rhoades worked for a commercial printing company and used the technique to produce posters for the pop music industry.
From this initial technical exposure, Rhoades has developed a refined and subtle style. As printmaking moved from commercial use into the realm of fine art, it was taken up by pop art, and especially by Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol: Warhol’s 1962 images of Marilyn Monroe must be some of the most famous screen prints of the twentieth century. But where Warhol’s prints have an explicit, head-on engagement with the images of the mass media, Rhoades’ work stands back, using its difference from the rhetoric of the media to re-evaluate the imagery of political and social life.
The refined and often elegant aesthetic of Rhoades’ prints explores the manipulation of images in picture-making. In The Boy in the Boat, for example – described as ‘a self-portrait in an Origami world’ – a black and white photograph of a boy (presumably the artist) in a boat is planted in an image of an Origami boat, set, in turn, in a constructed paper surface, beneath which Origami fish swim. Here, the artifice of art, and especially the engineering of the printing process, is indulged and enjoyed: the effect is both clever and aesthetically interesting.
But this kind of layering is also used to dark and deeply critical effect. Let Them Eat Gateaux (1988) juxtaposes a huge slice of pink and brown cake with a desolate image of an empty industrial block, in front of which a mother and her children pass. The outrageous and flamboyant irony of the title only saddens the whole image, emphasized as the work is in ‘proof’ form – a ‘technical experiment’ that retains a raw quality, lost in the finished precision of the other works.
Rhoades does not shy away from explicit political criticism – A Decade and Class are grim commentaries on Thatcher’s government: ‘what can you say’ asks a piece of paper, pictured as pinned onto an image of the Poll Tax Riots.
A recurrent theme in these prints is the media, its power and its omnipotence. In The Tower of Babel, a field stacked with hay bales is literally interrupted and corrupted by a tower of compressed black and white newspaper. Even in the countryside the idyll is false, subject as much as urban life to the omnipotence and influence of the press. Similarly, Winter Landscape is a very British scene, a ploughed snowy field, across which a crumpled copy of the Sun newspaper spreads its stories. In the list of prints provided by the gallery, an ironic note beneath the title reads: ‘The Murdoch media have consistently spread enlightenment and warmth on our cultural landscape.’ The bleakness of the scene sums it all up – it adds a horrible history to the Leveson Inquiry, a reminder of how long the Murdoch Empire has dominated the media.
Rhoades writes that he was attracted by the visceral processes of printmaking, and his work is acutely aware of its own media. It seems apt that printing should deal with print – for works aware of their media to use that awareness to voice a criticism of the mass media.
Photographs and newsprint are turned against themselves, subtly rearranged to appear in a different light. Both conceptual and intuitive, these prints recall Walter Benjamin’s ‘Deukbilds’ or thought-images – moments or snapshots that poetically capture the interrelation of the ideological, the political, the aesthetic, and the philosophical.
This is an exhibition that shows art doing what it does best. It is picture-making done ably and beautifully, considering its own processes and developing the kind of commentary that printmaking, from Lautrec to Warhol, has always participated in.
Jennifer Johnson is reading for a DPhil in History of Art at St John’s College, Oxford.