The World is a Haunted House

Warren Feeney (2010)

Who are the children that have occupied centre stage in the paintings of Beverly Rhodes since 2006 and where are they located in time and space? Isolated in physically and psychologically ambiguous environments, their vulnerability co mmands our attention and demands an explanation of their predicament. This desire for clarification is entirely reasonable. From the Wallpaper Series in 2006 to the Moretta Mask paintings of 2011, Rhodes has provided few clues about the identity or location of these figures. They might be actors on a darkened stage or they could be children precariously seeking shelter in a familiar domestic interior. If only their predicament was made clear, the impending omen and threat that seems to wait just beyond their field of vision might depart.

One thing is certain. Whether clutching on to the security of a childhood toy or dressed and readied for an i mminent bridal ceremony as flower girls, these children have lost their innocence. They are isolated, weary of this world and haunted by memories of past events. It is a solitude revealed through their gestures, the objects that they grasp and the penetrating vacuity of their gaze outward from an environment that they are too petrified to depart.

Rhodes' children, however, are also among good company. All these individuals belong to an iconography that surfaced in Europe in the 18th century as part of the Romantic Movement, initially evident in the courtly portraits of Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Painting the families of Spanish royalty and nobles, Goya treated their children as equally worthy subjects, liberating the child in European painting from the constraints and limitations of being part-players in the art of the Old Masters as either cherubs or angels. Yet, no longer constrained as an allegory for an idyllic childhood or vision of a heavenly utopia, this recognition of the child as human was accompanied by an acknowledgement of the implicit complexities of adulthood; sexuality, suffering and death.ii

It is also this revelation of a loss of innocence that pervades Rhodes' canvases and alludes to wider concerns of humanity's fall from grace in the modern world. So why was Goya the first artist whose paintings considered the demise of the virtue of childhood and anticipated the impending anxieties of Western society? As an artist frequently perceived to bridge the gap between the late Baroque traditions of the 18th century and the modern movement, Goya intuitively responded to the period in which the politics and economical infrastructures of the modern world were established, capturing and questioning the rationalism of a culture that would dominate Western civilisation into the late 20th century. This triumph of the age of reason and the accompanying expansion of Western civilisation into the New World and the Pacific was also the era of the discovery of cultures other than European. Inevitably, global exploration raised questions about the certainty of European culture and human behaviour. For the first time, Western civilisation was exposed to the possibility that ultimate truths might reside in intuition and the subconscious of each individual:

"It was in the 18th century that the flow of consequences began which has found its issue in our time..... with man himself, it became important to discover his nature first of all – no longer the traditional or logical laws to which he was subject, but what was sensitive, spontaneous and intuitive. Thus, instead of the universal, one was dealing with the particular man, more to reach the foundations than to admire the edifice; they started searching for the 'depths'. From sensibility, which preoccupied the 18th century, they moved on to the passions, the instincts, the temperament, the basic drives and, finally, the unconscious.iii"

And as notions of certainty and fact came under scrutiny, the benign confidence of authority itself was increasingly up for question. If Rhodes' paintings of children pay some form of homage to a loss of human innocence first expressed in the portraits of Goya, she equally interrogates the malevolent nature of power. It pervades the very psyche of the individuals in her paintings, silent and detached in their co mmunication with one another and the viewer, they vacantly look out from the darkened void in which they stand, clinging to props and accessories that act as the residue of an aftermath of unseen violence. How does a child reconcile the virtues of existence with an experience that has transformed perceptions of human behaviour forever? Rhodes touches upon an alienation that refuses the possibility of healing or comfort. Even when these children partake in a seemingly festive or celebratory occasion, such as the figures in the Flower Girls series (2008) they remain detached from their surroundings as though engagement with humanity would only consolidate their loss.

In the Moretta Mask Series (2010) Rhodes' use of a curious 18th century French/Italian mask, makes tangible the traumatic silence of her figures. In fashionable European society its task was to disguise the identity of its wearer and to make sure that they did not talk on social occasions. Holding an attached button on the mask between their teeth, the disguise ensured that they were a complicit participant in this subterfuge. Paradoxically, although the mask identified and silenced its wearers, it also cloaked their personality and offered some degree of safety and shelter, even if it was only precarious or ephemeral.

The Moretta Mask Series gives material form to a silence between family members, brothers, sisters and mothers and children, and just as the Harbour Series (2010) implied the need for a place of security or sheltered anchor, these masked figures are also longing for sanctuary. In doing so, they share with the individuals in Rhodes' previous paintings an anxiety that articulates a loss of innocence, universal to human behaviour. The children in Rhodes' paintings, like all children, should represent notions of renewal and regeneration. Rhodes' however, reveal a far bleaker vision of the human condition, wounded and traumatised; a revelation of a fall from grace and a betrayal of a collective, eternal aspiration for life and being.

Warren Feeney

i. Sean Penn, Ninth November Night, Cologne: Ludwig Museum, 2003.
ii. In Goya's portrait of the young Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga, (c. 1790), for example, his youthful subject provides an acute and poignant lesson in the loss of innocence and the world as an indifferent environment with the child dutifully and naively holding his pet bird on its leash, unaware of the impending prey of two cats behind him readied to pounce.
iii. René Huyghe, 'Art Forms and Society,' René Huyghe, [ed], Art and Mankind. Larousse Encyclopaedia of Modern Art. From 1800 to the Present Day, London: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1965, pp. 18-22.