Flower Girls

The Painting of Beverly Rhodes

Jamie Hanton (2009)

"What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and everything nice,
That's what little girls are made of."

When posing the question 'What are folks made of?" two hundred years ago English poet Robert Southey examined the human condition using analogies so true and so succinct that such comparisons could not help but become part of our social fabric and gender perceptions. Yet there are few artists of any kind that are formally qualified to unravel our desires, clarify our minds, or put a microscope to the way in which we function. Beverly Rhodes is a fascinating exception, having completed her Masters in clinical psychology in 1990 from Victoria University and her Masters of Fine Arts in 2004 from RMIT.

Rhodes' work is based on the creation of a co mmunicative language of imagery, she has crafted a style that focuses on the fraught link between that which we are made of and the memories, emotions and the connections that move us, disturb us, and even frighten us. Her early practice concentrated on intensely personal experiences of privation and trauma and though Flower Girls draws on personal imagery it transcends the realm of art as exorcism, touching on the universal tendency to illuminate pleasurable memories and bury upsetting or disturbing fragments.

It is Southey's description of girls, now an accepted frame of reference for femininity, that is the point of departure for the Flower Girls series of paintings. Weddings come complete with the sugar and spice imagery of young flower girls stumbling disarmingly down the aisle eliciting croonings of cuteness from onlookers. Flower Girls skews these connotations as Rhodes fleshes out the relationship between an event, its impact and the subsequent memory. After all, many young flower girls are unaware of their effect on the crowd, unaware of any of their surroundings. They are destined to remember the day through photographs perused at a later date and reflected on with a blurry nostalgia, which Rhodes captures with a palette laced with sepias and rustic browns. Chiaroscuro is utilized to intensify the smothering darkness of memory while the contrast simultaneously illuminates their inherent feminine lightness. Yet the ominous gloom surrounding each girl and Rhodes intentionally sparse composition inevitably draws questions:

"I am interested in how to portray themes in a way that creates curiosity in the viewer and encourages their cognitive exploration of the work without traumatizing them with explicit images."

Just what has been done to these seemingly victimized innocents? Why are their heads shaved and their eyes hollow? Why are they holding feline companions? Are the cats real, stuffed or otherwise? Crucially, there is much in Rhodes' work that is left unresolved, the faces are gaunt but delicate, the dresses formal yet tarnished, all elements that provoke a throng of conflicting thoughts. William S. Burroughs outlined the provocative task of an artist when considering the work of one of Rhodes' key influences, Gottfried Helnwein;

"It is the function of the artist to evoke the experience of surprise recognition: to show the viewer what he knows but does not know he knows."

What is more surprising than a girl gently but determinedly throttling a cat and carrying out the action looking as if she is exacting revenge for her own misfortune. Throughout Flower Girls the cycle of trauma is hinted at but is submerged beneath the unspoken nature of personal pain and the sweetness and light perception of young girls. However, as Burroughs suggests, it is Rhodes evocative painting that draws the upsetting realisation that these scenes are indeed well known to us all.

Jamie Hanton