PAUL LASTER September 2, 2023
A painter and collagist, Rhonda Wall has been creating art and performances for most of her life. Initially exhibiting her work in New York’s thriving downtown art scene in Soho and the East Village in the 1980s, Wall moved to Easton, PA, where she taught art from 1997 to 2018, while still exhibiting in New York and elsewhere. Wall is presenting a curated selection of the colorful collage paintings that she’s been creating in the studio in the solo show “How Do We Survive? Everything Happens At the Same Time” at Muhlenberg College’s Martin Art Gallery (August 28 – October 6, 2023) in Allentown, PA. Whitehot Magazine contributing editor and independent curator Paul Laster, who has known Wall since 1982, recently sat down to speak with the inventive artist about her life and work, and how they are wonderfully intertwined.
When did you first become interested in art?
I can’t remember not making art. When I was a little girl, I was always in my own world making art—escaping from the real world.
What did you create?
I would make drawings of my relatives. I loved drawing their clothes, hairdos and all of their shoes, jewelry and purses. In kindergarten, I can remember doing drawings to illustrate the alphabet. When I did science reports, I would make extensive collage pieces to go with the reports.
Were you encouraged by your parents or teachers?
My elementary school teacher selected a few students for after-school art classes. It was there that I did my first oil painting. My parents were supportive and I was fortunate to go to Saturday morning art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The museum was closed and I loved walking through the Egyptian wing in the dark to get to my class. I also took classes at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. In high school, I spent most of my time in the art classrooms and won a lot of awards, including one to go to Mass College of Art and Design. I went with my mother to get my pieces matted and framed and we were photographed in the local newspaper, which was encouraging. My high school friend and I would go to the town library and take out piles of contemporary art books; I couldn’t get enough of them. I choreographed dance performances and worked with different mediums. I always had my own style. My high school art teacher told my parents that I would get into the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)—and that prediction later came true.
Was there anything in your childhood that impacted your art-making?
During my childhood, I spent a lot of time visiting my mother in hospitals. When I was really young in the 1960s, I waved from the parking lots because children were not allowed to go into hospitals at the time. She had many surgeries and complications. My escape was working on my art. I had to believe in hope.
When did you start to see art as a career path?
When I was thirteen. I went to visit my cousin who lived in the West Village that summer. He gave me acrylic paints, and when he went to work, I painted in his apartment. I went to MoMA by myself and loved it. I walked all around Soho in my overalls. I didn’t know where I was, but I knew that someday I would want to move to New York City and be an artist.
What made you choose RISD?
RISD had the best reputation on the East Coast. Their freshman foundation program had an excellent reputation.
Who were your professors?
I studied with the painters Robert Hamilton, Dean Richardson and Louisa Chase, as well as David McCauley, an illustrator.
Did any of them have an impact on the work you made after leaving school?
No, but they were all inspiring. Louisa Chase was great at showing us slides of art exhibits going on and she took us to New York and to visit artists’ studios. We visited Elizabeth Murray, John Torreano, James Havard and Louisa’s studio. I was a painting major, so this was very exciting to me.
What was the New York art scene like when you moved to the city in the late 1970s?
I moved to New York in the summer of 1978, right after graduating from RISD. I sublet a loft in Soho at 59 Wooster Street, in the same building as The Kitchen and Brooke Alexander Gallery. Eventually, there were four of us living there for $200 a month per person. I started painting large stretched canvases. I also worked on textile designs, illustrations and part-time at a women’s clothes store. In 1979, I wrote, directed and starred in a performance piece titled Who Am I and Destroy Telephones, which was performed in our loft. I remember seeing Red Grooms in the audience. At the time, there were some great galleries in Soho, but only one restaurant and very few stores. The downtown art scene was in Soho and there were also galleries on 57th Street and the Upper East Side. However, things were about to shift to the East Village, where art soon took over storefront spaces and clubs.
Did you start showing right away?
No, I didn’t start showing right away. In 1980, my husband (artist Bruce Wall) and I moved to India for a year. Bruce had received a Fulbright grant to photograph Kolam and Alpaca designs. We traveled all over India to find these amazing designs. In the South, they are done with rice powder as a daily ritual by Hindu women, and in the North on mud walls. When we moved back to New York I made paintings and drawings that were inspired by India. That year there was a Tylenol poisoning scare (from someone tampering with a bottle), which also influenced my work. My work has always had multiple things going on at the same time, whether it is a UFO, a Queen or a war.
In 1982, I had my first group show—“The UFO Show,” curated by Bud Hopkins at the Queens Museum—and then I was included in the exhibition “Four Artists” at the Soho Center for Visual Artists, where a painting was acquired by Needham Harper & Steers, a major Madison Avenue ad agency. In 1983, I took part in “The Terminal Show,” which was a big, exciting exhibition on the waterfront in Brooklyn. This led to a string of shows in the East Village art galleries and NYC clubs in 1984 and 1985.
What was your first big break?
A lot of good things happened along the way, but my first big break was probably when I had my first solo show at Sensory Evolution Gallery in the East Village in 1984. Keith Haring came to the opening and bought two pieces. The exhibition had a number of large paintings, with some in full color and others in black and white with yellow borders. I also had cut-out, shaped paintings of characters that I had developed on foam core, as well as black and white pen and ink drawings on white paper. Keith bought an 18 x 24-inch painting and a cut-out Tropic Rhonda head. Both were later sold by the Keith Haring Foundation in the 2020 Sotheby’s auction “Dear Keith: Works from the Personal Collection of Keith Haring.” It was during this time that I was exhibiting in a lot of curated shows in galleries and clubs like The Palladium, Kamikaze, Limelight and Limbo Lounge, with openings nearly every night. In 1985, I also had a one-person exhibition at B-Side Gallery in the East Village.
What was your medium at the time?
I was working with acrylic paint on canvas, paint on cut-out foam core and pen and black ink drawings on white paper.
What was your subject matter that you were exploring?
My work has always been about survival. World Woman, The Determined Girl and Tropic Rhonda were the characters that I was using at the time. World Woman held the burden of the world while asking if time was running out. The Determined Girl walks right through whatever stands in her way and Tropic Rhonda has hope and believes in a future. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated in 1984, so I dedicated a large-scale painting to her, titled Indira Had No Escape.
Why did you decide to return to college to get an MFA in 1993, after already having established a career and having had numerous exhibitions?
Our wonderful son Alex had been born in 1987; and even though I was selling work, it was not enough to live on. Having a child never stopped me from making art. When I had a commission to paint a large backdrop for a musical performance by David Garland, I put Alex in his baby seat and painted on a ladder weeks after he was born. I started hand-painting hats for him with different themes because I couldn’t find any store-bought ones that I liked. Everywhere we went people (including Mary Boone, who also had a son) asked, “Where did you get that hat?” The Laughing Hatter, which is what I called my company, was very successful, with the first store being Henri Bendel, followed by Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and others. There was coverage in The New York Times and New York Magazine. It could not have been more popular, but I couldn’t live off of it. In 1990, I was offered a sabbatical replacement at RISD, teaching painting for a year from one of my professors. I commuted there from New York. Seeing it as a steady income, I began applying for full-time college teaching positions. I had many interviews, but no one would hire me without an MFA degree. So, from 1993 to 1995, while teaching part-time, I went to Vermont College to get my MFA. And then we moved to Easton, PA in 1992.
What motivated you to move out of New York?
Teaching jobs—I taught at Kutztown University for 21 years. I loved my students and colleagues there.
Were you able to maintain your connection to the city and the New York art scene?
Yes, it was very important to me to stay connected— not only to the New York art scene but also to our many friends there. We moved to Easton because it was only an hour and a half by car to the city and I could also easily commute to my teaching job in Kutztown. As a result of staying connected, I had one-person exhibitions at Accola Contemporary in New York in 2009 and Accola Griefen Gallery in 2011, along with a 2015 solo show, curated by Renée Riccardo, at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show in New York.
What led you to return to performance art in the mid-1990s?
When I went to graduate school, I was able to bring together many of the things I had been working on over the years, particularly painting, collage, installation and performance. I also was doing more historical research, which I then incorporated into two major performance art pieces, Life Is a Dada Fashion Show at the Bauhaus and Russian Fantasia. I have performed both of them in several venues since leaving school.
Do you see the work that you are making now as being related to performance?
I see my hybrid paintings/collages as performance landscapes, where I’m merging the conflict between technology and nature into a futuristic world—a realm where everything happens at the same time. While I’m working on a piece, there is always something that happens in politics, science and technology; or there’s a natural disaster and I incorporate that topic into the work. I start with an abstract geometric background and then choreograph what goes where in the composition. There are many hidden parts from many different sources, including my own photographs. I’m often trying to show a horrific situation made beautiful.
When did you start bringing issues that were social, political and environmental or ones that are concerned with consumer and economic matters into your work?
It actually started in the 1980s, with my paintings and drawings. In the 1990s, when I started integrating collage and three-dimensional objects into the work, these issues became more involved and complex. Our son Alex was Director of Online Engagement of the Office of Digital Strategy for the Obama Administration, and this kept me very focused on current issues via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
What’s the process for deciding what a piece will address?
Depending on what is happening in my personal life or in the world that day, I find the subject matter for the piece. For example, in The Car Wash, Bird’s Nest and The Report, I was eating a plum in my studio and it was so beautiful that I decided to photograph it. Later, I went to the carwash and was struck by the purple colors that I saw through the windshield, which related to the plum, so I took more photos. In the afternoon, I took a walk and photographed some fuchsia-colored flowers and also a bird’s nest with turquoise eggs. Later that day The Mueller Report came out, so that also got included.
Do you sketch out the idea or make a drawing or digital design in advance of beginning a new piece or does it just develop organically through the process of action and reaction?
I work both ways. For the initial, painted geometric background, I sometimes make a quick sketch. At other times, I just start painting shapes. I use my scissors like a drawing tool, as I cut out the shapes for each character or environment. Each figure or element is composed of many separate pieces, which are taken from multiple sources. I develop the composition as I go along rather than working from preliminary drawings. It’s all done by hand, without any digital processes.
How do you decide what to paint and what to collage?
I paint or collage the background first. The color is important and is usually inspired by the images that I am working with, whether it is the image of a computer chip or a pink street light in Venice, Italy. After I compose the figures and other compositional elements, I outline them in black and then glue everything down. There is a back-and-forth between the painting and the collage.
Where do you source the imagery that gets collaged into the works?
My source imagery comes from printed materials, particularly old science and computer books, and old magazines, especially ones from the 1960s. I also research the internet for specific imagery—as needed—and use my own photos of the world around me, such as images from nature, light and shadows. I also like taking photos from the TV screen and am always looking for patterns and reflections to photograph. I especially like using distorted pictures from mistakes that are made in the printing process.
Do you duplicate images to be able to repeat them in a piece?
Yes, I enlarge, reduce and repeat images—both abstract and figurative—to get the effects that I want.
Why do you outline the collaged elements in black or vibrant colors?
The outline clarifies the shapes—and with the vibrant color, it gives the imagery a magic glow.
Do you feel like you’ve found a way to make the Dada and Bauhaus aesthetics new again in these works, to revitalize these movements in a new way?
I hope so. I would like to think that I am doing something new and fresh in the way I am integrating collage and painting with the geometric grounds and with my natural stream-of-consciousness imagery.
What role are machines and new technology playing in the pieces?
I have always been interested in science fiction, new inventions and machines. I frequently use this type of imagery in the development of my characters and scenes. I feel like machines and technology are now so integrated into our existence that we can’t separate them from it.
You've already spoken about The Car Wash, Bird’s Nest and The Report, but what’s the story behind Along the Nile, With LA Out the Window?
I was working on a piece that started out about Los Angeles. I love LA and I had just visited there. Our son and his girlfriend had just gotten back from Egypt and showed us 400 spectacular photos that they had taken there. I decided to combine LA and Egypt together. I was thinking about what survives, such as the pyramids and tombs. In the piece, the future is represented by the solar panel figure and digging for water, while the present is referenced by the blue lotus flower, palm trees and architectural creations, such as The Broad Museum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (in the dress on the figure on the left). The landscape is Egypt and the central water woman figure is a hybrid. The two realms merge with my photos of Los Angeles, as seen from a window and the solar panel figure leading a camel.
And what events inspired Before The Flood?
A week after Bruce and I returned from a trip to Venice to visit the Venice Biennale and other cultural sites in the fall of 2019, there was a devastating flood in Venice. The city’s flood-defending MOSE project was not yet completed, so it was unable to hold back the rising tide. I wanted to do a piece that brought back the glorious, enchanting, spellbinding memory of Venice. I used my photos of architectural imagery, floor patterns in churches, views out windows, masks, Murano glass, found images, up and down ramps and stairs, the incomplete MOSE project and acrylic paint to create this piece.
What about the title of your current solo show, “How Do We Survive? Everything Happens At the Same Time”? What does it reference?
All of the work for the exhibit, created between 2019 and 2023, was made right before the COVID-19 pandemic when there was political and social unrest; during the pandemic, when there was a lot of uncertainty about mankind’s survival; and during the post-pandemic period, when we have been trying to rebuild hope.
Are the figures in your works surrogates for the self, surrogates for you?
Although I usually think of the figures as female, I don’t consciously make them surrogates or self-portraits—but perhaps they unconsciously are.
Do you feel that by addressing these problems, by putting yourself in the middle of them in your art, your art might contribute to some degree of change?
Yes, I would like my work to represent—in some way—the times we live in. I want to show some of the things that are going on—both the horrific things and the beautiful things. I strongly believe that we will survive and get through these times and that life will go on. WM
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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