Rhonda Wall: Everything Happens at the Same Time
By PAUL LASTER, JULY 2014
One of the pioneers of the 1980s East Village art scene, Rhonda Wall started out as a figurative painter, but has since turned her creative practice into a mixed media wonderland, where geometric abstraction and characters culled from media sources meets current events. “The East Village art scene was an energetic and exciting time for me,” Wall recently recalled. “I was painting and drawing—fast and furious—for the next group, club or solo exhibition. While my work has changed a lot since then, the momentum from that time period carries on.”
Best known for her layered paintings that blend collage imagery from old magazines, outdated scientific manuals and Internet sources with colorful brushwork, Wall studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received a BFA in the medium in 1978, and in 1995 obtained an MFA in Visual Arts from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Today, she’s making 21st-century visual mash-ups that draw upon all that she has learned and persistently confronts.
Just as the East Village was becoming a hot spot for new art, Wall began exhibiting her pop paintings at the area’s cutting-edge galleries, which had such offbeat names as Sensory Evolution, B Side, Vox Populi, Civilian Warfare, Dramatis Personae, Limbo, and Public Image. Nearly overnight, the whole scene took off, and almost as quickly the art world pulled up stakes and shifted back to SoHo, where Wall continued to show her paintings and drawings.
Later, at Vermont College, she added performance art to her practice, constructing the live-action works Russian Fantasia and Life is a Dada Fashion Show at the Bauhaus that were performed at multiple East Coast venues in the late-‘90s. The historical research related to those performances still inspires Wall’s work, but she now prefers mediated characters to convey her ideas. “Most of my works since that time are like silent, two-dimensional performances,” the artist declared.
One can chart the current evolution of Wall’s art from the 1996-97 series of mixed-media collages and installations USA and Then India referencing a prolonged time in India and her post-9/11 series As the World Turns Now, which examines how people from different cultures were impacted by that catastrophic event, to the Hospitals Are Places series motivated by her mother’s multiple surgeries and lengthy hospital stays and the dynamic images from Everything Happens at the Same Time, her latest cycle of works concerning the stormy state of politics and social issues (mainly in America yet sometimes worldwide.)
The central stage for the action of 2011’s The Fox Could Not Pin the Tail On the Donkey is a laptop, with a donkey representing the Democratic Party and a pair of foxes symbolizing Fox News, which at the time was attacking and attempting to blame all of America’s woes on President Obama. Shortly before making the piece, Wall’s parents had died and she had found a “Pin the Tail on The Donkey” game amongst their possessions. Inspired by the game and the news of the day, she constructed a visual match of her own making, complete with depictions of blindfolded boys keeping the broadcaster at bay and hand-wielding joysticks.
Push Pomegranates Instead, also from 2011, utilizes Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant (with its six reactors) as the point of departure. A reoccurring woman’s head looks on as fingers hit the buttons that release pomegranates, a healthy fruit and fertility symbol, rather than radiation. The dominant figure’s dress consists of images from the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, while she wears a turtle on her head that represents good luck, longevity and stability in Japanese culture.
“These pieces are more dreamlike than my earlier collages, which were more direct,” Wall revealed. “Here the meaning is hidden in a fantasy environment. I find the images and usually know which ones I want to use and then I paint the background and add the imagery. If some major news breaks while I’m working on the piece, I might find visuals and add them.”
Wall seems to be anticipating the NSA surveillance scandal in her 2012 piece Discovering Earth, which features images of cameras, telescopes, televisions, computers and scanners, as she simultaneously imagines aliens discovering Earth back when dinosaurs and reptiles ruled the planet. Likewise, 2012’s Forward grapples with the Supreme Court debate and eventual upholding of the Affordable Care Act. The work was developed over the course of four weeks—the usual amount of time Wall spends on her large works—and was shaped by daily events, technology and history.
“I have a lot of old magazines, as well as computer and science books, that my engineer father gave to my son, who found them obsolete, but I also research on Google to find images relative to what I want to convey,” shared Wall. “On the other hand, pattern and color are as equally important to me as the imagery.”
Completely dreamlike, The Campaign, assembled in 2013, creates a pinball-like machine built on campaign buttons from past elections with a female figure representing Hurricane Sandy playing a decisive factor in the battle between blue and red—Democrats and Republicans. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager that was shot in the head by the Taliban, and a Romulan that symbolizes a cross between Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan holding “binders full of women,” also haunts the reverie of a repeated sleeping woman, as does an echoed snail, which signifies the slow pace of political change.
Another piece—2013’s Surveillance, Cicadas and Praying Mantises—actually does address the issue of NSA spying via images of binoculars, cameras, tape recorders, X-ray specs, iPhones, computer watches and a television displaying the show Homeland. Insects simultaneously play a big part in the piece, with praying mantises bringing good luck if they’re not crushed, cicadas bursting on the scene and creating a loud buzz and bees, which Wall told Whitehot “reminds us to mind our own bees wax,” with hives that are worn like crowns.
Wall begins each piece with research, in which she finds images that fit a particular concept and puts the pictures into a folder. She reduces and enlarges the found images to multiply them and then cuts them out and outlines each one. Next she paints the grounds of her wood panels with stripes and plaids to represent the air we breathe and environments we inhabit. The colors come from what’s on her mind and what’s happening in the world.
It can take several days to form the composition, which the artist frequently adapts to breaking news. Once the composition is set, she glues down the images and then paints into the pieces. When it is finished, she applies several coats of varnish to seal it for eternity. However, her work’s not done yet. Using the same source images, Wall constructs a parallel piece at a smaller scale. Similar, yet different, the smaller works have patchwork grounds made from cutting up various light shades of art papers.
With the imagination of a screenwriter, Wall creates surreal, sci-fi scenarios where women, who are part human and part machine, rule the roost. Inspired by the Dada and Bauhaus masters Hannah Höch, Oskar Schlemmer and Kurt Schwitters—while possessing a unique intuitive sensibility—Wall whips her love of culture, technology, nature, feminism and the news into allegorical tableaux with the hope that her work might take on transformative powers and ultimately make the world a better place.
Most recently Wall has had solo shows at Accola Griefen Gallery in Chelsea in 2011 and at the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University in 2010, and her work was included in the group exhibition “The Art of Conflict” at the Noyes Museum of Art in 2013.
See more of her work at www.rhondawall.com
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author