One imagines Paul Rode living in a Gothic mansion in darkest Broadmead emerging periodically to freak people out at openings. Just kidding. Rode doesn’t show his work often but here he is at the Little Fernwood Gallery with some recent work. It’s an awkward space with a large street-side window but his big impressive paintings fit the space surprisingly well.
I first met Paul Rode in 1985 when he was living in a condemned house on Blanshard Street, which later became the parking lot of Save On Foods. He’d covered the house with murals prior to its destruction. I remember being struck by the epic scale. Anne Swannell wrote about it in Monday Magazine along with some photographs. This was in pre-digital days so unfortunately there’s no link.
Lighthearted and playful are not words that come to mind when talking about Rode’s work. It’s heavy. I don’t find them particularly scary. Turning the oceans into plastic soup, being force-fed genetically modified food, thousands of faceless computer geeks rummaging through our email….that’s a little scary. Or maybe I’m just oversensitive.
There I go again. I must fight this tendency to talk about myself. Don’t you just hate post-Modernism? Not you. You. Art writers shouldn’t be flaunting their literary dexterity; they should concentrate on the art.
So ‘Blame and Punishment’. A male figure is spanking another male figure in a De Chirico landscape under an apocalyptic sky. Are they father and son? Why are they watched by a female figure?
‘The Blinding of Paul’ …the title suggests some kind of epiphany and there is Saul of Tarsus naked on the ground being struck by a bolt of light. This is Rode’s variation on a major theme.
In ‘Fallen…Re-erected.’ a colossal head rests on a line of Grecian pillars that seem to bear the full weight of history.
On one level Rode’s work is political but it isn’t so much the conflict between political parties that concerns him as historical inequality and man’s inhumanity to man. This concern for social justice is most obvious in ‘Was it worth it?...Yes it was worth it.’ (Madeleine Albright’s famous statement about the death of Iraqi children). A large figure is reaching for an apple using an arm taken from a smaller figure. It’s a soft subtle painting but the message is strong.
A smaller painting about torture, ‘The Promised Land’, is even stronger and difficult to look at. Rode seems to be saying ‘this is what we do to each other’. Some will find these paintings a little, how to put this? ‘in your face’? Perhaps even didactic but Rode doesn’t have much patience with blandness.
He doesn’t go in for bright colours much either. The works are mostly rendered in ochres and greys….almost monochrome. Which adds to the brooding intensity. Life, death, action and retribution are all fused in these multi-layered works. It’s like a stroll through the mind of Ivan Ilyich.
Religious and historical connotations are unfashionable …unless they are ironic. I don’t sense any deliberate irony in Paul Rode’s work. He has consistently charted his own course. He’s aware of art history but seems oblivious to trends fashions and Zeitgeists. No pickled sharks or inflatable icons for him. His work doesn’t seem to belong to any particular period. That said his interest in myth may be bang up to the minute. Paul McCarthy has just filled the New York Armories with his take on ‘Snow White’. 85 tractor trailer loads of it.
All this makes Rode’s work difficult to categorize. And difficult to write about. His work has the same kind of visual strength as painters like Schnabel, Baselitz and Chia and his timeless themes are similar but his imagery is more primordial. Robert Amos likens his subject matter to a bad dream of The Brothers Grimm. I asked Rode how he feels about that.
He says he thinks Robert may have missed the point. ‘Nightmares? We all have this stuff buried inside ourselves. Sure it’s Freudian. Why deny it?’
That wasn’t exactly the definitive statement I was looking for so I decide to ask some other people who know Rode and his work. It’s always good to spread your bets….
James Lindsay: "it's the poetic painted polemics before colour and whimsy".
Manuel Martinez-Polo sees it in ‘Hegelian terms of power, pleasure and pain.’
And Robert Kidd: “I met Paul about thirty years ago when he came to see a show at Stones Gallery of work by Martin Honisch, I've been a fan ever since.
The depth of his inquiry through his paintings into the meaning of being, the insights to be found in the past works of mankind and with an acute awareness of the present, the inquiry being worked out with amazing visual imagery on his canvases.
To put my feelings for Paul's work in simple terms ‘they give me goose bumps’”.
Dark stuff is hot these days but will Rode’s paintings resonate with the Living Dead? Young people seem to like noir, they can’t get enough blood and skulls but Rode’s sources may be a little too obscure for them and his classical references tend to tax the brain cells. He deals in major themes and metaphysics. Would his imagery make cool tattoos? Hard to say. Deep-rooted Teutonic myths aren’t easily related to contemporary issues and interpretation requires a lot of thought. Intrepid gallery goers will find it well worth the effort. Paul Rode reveals the undercurrents beneath reality.
The Blindness of Paul
Paintings by Paul Rode
Little Fernwood Gallery
July 4 to 24, 2013
- Philip Willey is a visual artist and writer living in Victoria, BC