Mark Rodda’s figurative works are mostly romantic landscapes influenced primarily by 19th century paintings by artists such as Corot, Delacroix and Bocklin. The abstract draws from modernist abstraction from the early to mid 20th century. Kandinsky in his geometric phase, Paul Klee, Sonia Delaunay and Stuart Davis.
Rodda uses a unique system of artist-made synthetic polymer tiled frames for most of his works, invoking a preciousness akin to religious icon paintings, fetishising a precious, ‘jewel-like’, object. Like something that could be carried by a procession down some village street, the small size of the paintings also adds to their ornamental quality. These paintings with tiled frames are a contrast of fine art’s inspiration and brashness, with the careful and meditative aspects of craft and craftmanship.
The landscapes of Mark Rodda may be uninhabited but they are far from uninhabitable. Even in the bleakest of scenes such as Sparse Thicket, which depicts a clutch of leafless trees in the half-light of a grey sky, the viewer is offered refuge in the verdant growth and vibrant rocks that cluster around their roots. And in Under Grey Clouds, where winter seems ready to settle in and the only possibility for shelter, a tree, is reduced to a barren stump, there is still the unlikely appearance of some rich plant life which signpost a hollow, the perfect place to hibernate.
In Rodda’s paintings there is always somewhere to take refuge. This situates his work within a long tradition of European landscape painting where the viewer is reassured by signs of life in vast expanses of unoccupied space. At the same time, it’s what distinguishes it from that tradition because his paintings are so evidently not about the potential occupation of the land.
Specifically in relation to the tradition of non-indigenous Australian painting, the landscape was understood in terms of ownership – a way of constructing man’s dominance over nature and a wilderness to be overcome. Instead, Rodda uses the devices of landscape painting to create a type of egalitarian ecology – a world where one imagines plants, animals, humans, even fantastical creatures, would occupy the same status and live harmoniously. These are the non-hierarchical worlds of a child’s imagination or a utopian future. There’s still life and death and the changing of the seasons, but there’s no sense in which these natural cycles are conceived of as threat.
We see this most clearly in Nocturne (Frozen River) where the obvious natural obstacle to be conquered – a powerful body of water – is made still by the cool weather, creating a surface to cross, a bridge between two areas of land. It is in this magical picture that we can see that what Rodda’s paintings depict are what the landscape as a genre is really about: the landscape of our imaginations.
Not only do Rodda’s beautiful and mysterious worlds seduce the viewer in a remarkably singular way, they do so in way which makes us aware of this notion of the landscape as a site of psychological projection. Against the ‘lie’ of strictly representational painting, his peculiarly colourful, surreal takes on the landscape tradition reveal how it is never a literal place, but is always constituted by our own invested perspective.
Rodda’s mastery of the medium and his modesty as an artist also allows him to let the viewer in to another secret world, the world of painting itself. By employing a variety of techniques in his pictures which keeps the viewer in a dynamic relationship to the work, he reveals something of the painter’s methods. In the stylistic variations which capture our imaginations as powerfully as the strange pictorial elements in his work, we feel like we are being permitted into the mystical realm that painters of exceptional ability like Rodda have special access to. But far from breaking the spell, Rodda’s work only affirms the magic of painting.