Conversations with the Collection | Staff Insights on Carol Rhodes

Being so close to the artworks every day, our Security and Visitor Services team have a unique relationship with our collection. Colleagues from this team have written creative responses to an artwork or artist of their choosing from this display. These personal pieces aim to open up different ways of seeing our collection. This blog was written by Rachel Howarth on Service Station by Scottish artist Carol Rhodes.

While attending Conversations with the Collection I often take a pit stop at Carol Rhodes’ Service Station. Once there, I am not pulled in by the usual amenities, there are no golden arches or 20p toilets. Instead, I am pushed back, thousands of feet into the air. I am reminded of a rug I had to play on as a child, a cartoon-like village play mat, with an aerial view of shops, a town hall, all connected by roads. Of course, Rhodes’ painting is not made with such intentions, it is not to be interacted with physically – so what service does it provide?

Carol Rhodes Service Station 1998 © Estate of the Artist

Created quite early on in her painting career, Service Station is part of an impressive oeuvre of paintings and drawings dedicated to aerial landscape imagery. Each one depicts a different portion of the same map, the same elevated viewpoint, of places recognisably non-specific. Each quarry, housing estate, or car park is a stand-in for every quarry, housing estate, and car park. Service Station is not ‘A Service Station’ it is just Service Station: it is both one and many.

This exemplifies a theme I see as being at the core of Rhodes’ work: tension. The works are incredibly detailed, and yet could be equally described as lacking detail: the artist paints the repeating suggestion of petrol pumps, and yet there are no cars or people. There is tension inherent in the viewpoint, which is neither too close nor too far away (and ironically, not ‘just right’ either). It is a view we only get on an aeroplane, so when experienced, we are either moving away from or towards the ground, never statically observing it, as Rhodes’ paintings force us to.

Although Rhodes’ paintings unsettle me greatly, I find them fascinating. I enjoy paintings that allow us to look at something familiar in an unfamiliar way; when something recognisable becomes unrecognisable and uncanny, or even absurd. This is something that I try to evoke in my own art practice. During lockdown in 2020, I was running out of TV programmes to watch and so began watching the reruns of old Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? episodes. I was fascinated by how strangely intimate the show was visually. The dim lights around a closeup of the contestant's face captioned with the quiz question and answers. I began to pause at moments of tension and take photographs of the screen to paint from.

Rachel Howarth, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (2020), watercolour on paper, 33 x 28cm.

I find that when confronted by something representational that teeters outside of the conventional categories of still life, landscape and portrait, people will always ask: Why would someone want to paint that? I like it when a painting provokes that question.

All things aside, I still imagine pushing a tiny toy car across Service Station’s motorway, mimicking an engine’s ‘vroom.’

By Rachel Howarth, 12 April 2023