Holly Rhodes is an emerging oil painter from Sydney who explores the many facets of the female experience in her solo exhibition ‘Garden Landing’ at Jerico Contemporary. Within her work she poses questions surrounding the innate contrasts of femininity, strength, sacredness and sexuality. They pay homage to traditional depictions of women in art history but have a distinctly contemporary and feminist approach to translating the female form. She is emboldening her reclining nudes to be flawed, almost grotesque, to let their stomachs hang out and sit in unfeminine positions. Despite their imperfect forms and distorted proportions, they move with ease; reclining, stretching and arching their way across the canvas. They embody the essence of women comfortable in the company of only each other, absent of the confines of the male gaze.
‘Garden Landing’ is an exploration of femininity and self-awareness, and the works delve into how we may be observed, perceived and understood. The works center around the concept of a Hortus Conclusus (Latin for ‘enclosed garden’), evoking Garden of Eden imagery with the carefree nudes lounging within. These idyllic walled gardens imply privacy and impenetrability, and the need to protect these vulnerable figures from the world outside. As gallerist Jerico Tracy explains, Rhodes depicts ‘a post-paradise landscape in an effort to protect the female figures from harm, to maintain paradise, and nurture an inner life-force that once was.’
Inspired by 17th century European paintings and tapestries, Rhodes captures the stillness and serenity of these historical works, re-iterating these sacred moments between women. Despite its sublime utopian façade, the walled gardens speak of division and danger, an unknown threat from which one needs to build a sanctuary. It is only within these walls that Rhodes’ figures can exist as they are, safe from the eyes and hands of man.
The figures seem to exist outside of the confines and expectations of civilisation, the walls around the gardens being the only indication that any other life exists at all. The perpetual sunset adds to the utopian feeling of the show, as if it is always the beginning or the end of the day, and either way there’s not much to do but enjoy it.
It appears that creating this series was therapeutic; that there was healing involved in building a world for women to be themselves in, where nothing else can touch them. In depicting paradise she hints at purgatory, brushing on past indiscretions while painting up a world where it could never happen again. Holly doesn’t paint from life, instead representing the body from impression, experience and imagination. Their poses, said Rhodes, ‘are about them being more of an expression of an emotion, re-imagined. All my figures I feel are like self-portraits…they’re like little spiritual versions of me. Little moments.’ Upon close inspection, the figures reveal themselves to be versions of Rhodes herself, a kind of extended self-portrait. The artist takes all of her emotions, gives them each a body and builds a wall around them to keep them safe forever. She is interested in depicting what it looks like to find strength and sanctuary within oneself, rather than from external factors.
This exhibition is a fascinating amalgamation of old and new; classical materials and compositions combined with a striking contemporary perspective and approach. Holly’s masterful understanding of colour, tone and shade mean that these imperfect figures look like both the famous muses of art history, and the women we encounter and embody every day. They are openly sensual, but have not compromised any other facets of themselves to express it. In a way, Rhodes is painting herself into the canon of art history with this show, lending her feminine gaze to a time that was in need of it.
29 August to 21 September 2019