Rhonda Wall‘s collaged paintings depict surreal landscapes where the wacky and the tragic co-exist. Her topsy-turvy worlds, in which enigmatic and often over the top cartoony characters go on with their daily business, are idiosyncratic and current. Rhonda Wall shares with Art Spiel her downtown NYC art world experience during the 80s, her work process and ideas.
AS: You were born in Boston, studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and Vermont College, lived in New York City and then in Pennsylvania. Tell me a bit more about yourself.
Rhonda Wall: From my earliest memories as a child, I always loved making art. I can remember doing caricature pencil drawings of imaginary characters and of my relatives, typically with details on clothes, jewelry, and hair styles. I was always interested in music and theatre as well, lining up greeting cards and conducting performances with the cards. I was always in my own invented world.
My elementary school art teacher asked my parents if I could take afternoon classes at his house. That’s where I made my first oil painting. Soon after, I started taking Saturday morning art classes at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts where I got a sneak peek at the Egyptian wing in the dark, before it opened to the public. In high school, I was fortunate to receive an award to go take classes at Mass College of Art on the weekends. My art teacher at Lexington High School was a great supporter, and one of my earliest mentors in art. I spent most of my time in the art room, where I dove into painting, printmaking, jewelry, pen and ink drawings, and collage. I’d take slides and put different spices on them such as pepper, sugar, and salt, and then I’d project them on a white sheet hanging on a stage. The spices would move due to the heat of the slide protector, which created some incredible special effects. To finish off the scene, I choreographed dancers (many of them, my friends) with music in front of and behind the sheet.
I loved RISD from the moment I stepped on campus as a painting major, particularly my Freshman Foundation classes (that I’d later go on to teach!). 2D Design with David Macaulay and working with the late painter Louisa Chase were particular highlights that stand out looking back. Chase gave me my first real exposure to slides from the latest New York City exhibits.
Just like my work in high school, I continued to pave my own path at RISD, creating fictional worlds through painting, collages, mixed media, and performances. My first performance at RISD which I wrote, directed and starred in, had three pieces in it, “Triangle, Line, Square, Circle”, “Primaries At War”, and “Please Be Quiet,” with a cast of ten, one of whom happened to be my future husband, Bruce, a RISD grad student in painting.
After RISD, I moved to New York in 1978 and sublet a loft at 59 Wooster St. in SoHo. I painted and produced a new set of performance pieces, “Who Am I and Destroy Telephones”,“In Between”, and an expanded version of “Please Be Quiet”. My performance casts featured Dan Witz, Bill Norton, Karen Klingon, Lindsay Walt, David Garland, Bruce Wall and others. Red Grooms attended the performance. A year later, Bruce and I got married and we moved to India for a year. Bruce had a Fulbright Grant to document the extraordinary Kolam designs in southern India and the Alpana Designs in the north, all created by Hindu women. Kolam is done as a daily ritual. As we traveled all over India documenting these designs, I continued painting. Once our adventure in India wrapped up, we moved back to New York City.
AS: While writing about your work, both in online art blogs and more recently in Kolaj Magazine (#19), I learned about your active participation in the pretty wild NYC art scene of the 80s. What would you like to share about it now in Art Spiel and how do think this experience impacted your work?
Rhonda Wall: When I got back from India, I ran the library at the Soho Center for Visual Artists on Prince St. Bruce was the director of the gallery. This was right as the East Village Art Scene had started. I was working on large paintings on stretched canvas, paintings on paper, black and white pen and ink drawings, and cut out shapes. It was a very energetic and exciting time in the New York art world: storefront galleries were opening, club exhibits were popping up on a nightly basis, I showed in a group exhibition at the Palladium, where a group of us painted on scaffolding and people danced below us (I caught a glimpse of the whole scene in an Artforum piece many years later). The galleries took out ads in Artforum for each exhibit. Every night, a different artist would have a solo show at Limbo Lounge and Limelight (I did both). Limos would pull up at all of the galleries. Collectors were buying art as artists and critics checked out all of the exhibits.
My first solo exhibit at a gallery was at Sensory Evolution Gallery, where I painted the front of the space. The opening was a mob scene, as all East Village openings were during this era. Keith Haring came with two of his friends and he bought two of my pieces. Can you imagine no cell phones and no photos to post on Instagram? What a world it was back then!
My second solo gallery show was at B-Side Gallery. Two of the central characters in my work at the time were World Woman and Tropic Rhonda. Women characters have always played a major role throughout all of my work. Whether they are human, aliens, robots, androids, clones, or a mixture – they rule the worlds and landscapes that I create. Ever since this era, I’ve maintained working at an intense, fast and furious pace, always ready for the next exhibit.
In 1987, after we had our wonderful son Alex, I started a children’s hat company called The Laughing Hatter. Five years later, we moved to Easton, PA, and shortly thereafter I enrolled in a graduate program at Vermont College to get my MFA while I taught part-time. I worked with the late Janet Kaplan (art historian) and the artist Faith Wilding. In grad school, I worked on collage, painting, installation and performances. I wrote, directed and performed in two more performance pieces, “Russia Fantasia” and “Life is a Dada Fashion Show at the Bauhaus.” These were later performed at Cedar Crest College, Long Island University and Kutztown University. Once I had my MFA, I moved into teaching as a Professor at Kutztown University, where I taught 2D & 3D design, and an installation course for 21 years.
AS: You create intricate worlds where fact and fiction fuse into enigmatic worlds inhabited by many characters. You list some of your sources as specific events, pop icons, historical figures, disaster and so on. Do you have a search and archival systems for these images?
Rhonda Wall: When I start a new piece, I usually have something in mind, an event that just happened in the world, an invention, a crisis, a political situation, a natural disaster, something from the past, something happening at that moment or something made up. I’ll start by doing research to find the images I will use. Every piece has a folder with the original images from which I make copies to use in the painting/collages. More recently, I’ve been using my own photographs as well. Each character I create has parts from many different sources.
It questions how does one survive in a delirium state or in a possibly dangerous and difficult situation? Where does one get the determination to survive under debilitating circumstances? These figures, objects, and geometric forms keep going, passing each other in a stage-like landscape, sometimes from the past, the present, and the future. I’m trying to convey an ugly and disturbing situation in a beautiful way, life goes on.
AS: You have a large body of work that can be described as “collage.” Even when it’s not traditional cut and paste, it involves a collage thought process of coalescing fragments into a meaningful whole. How do you see your work in that context ?
Rhonda Wall: I see my work as painting/collages. Oftentimes, I research the different subjects I’m working on. My large pieces start with painted non-objective backgrounds, and then I work on the collage aspect. The images are reduced or enlarged, and hand cut. Each collage piece is outlined and put together with many pieces. After the pieces are glued on, I go back and paint into the piece more. When I was 13, I went to MOMA for the first time and saw the work of Romare Bearden, which really inspired me. And of course, I am a big fan of the collage work of the Dadaists, Russian Constructivists and early modernists.
AS: You work in long term series. Let’s take “Delirium, Danger and Determination.” How did this series begin, what is the idea behind it, and your process?
Rhonda Wall: This was a series of painting/collages I did for my exhibit at Accola Griefen Gallery in Chelsea in 2011. These pieces were made during the time my father was dying and after he died. When I was visiting my Dad in the hospital, he said to me, “Look Who Is Behind You?” and I said, “who Dad?” he said, “two white horses.” He was smiling at the time. The doctor said he was in a delirium state of mind. So, in 2010 I created “Two White Horses Prevail”. I have read that the horse symbolizes life and death and that the horse can guide dead souls on the journey to the next life. At the graveside funeral, when the men were taking the casket out of the hearse, they accidentally dropped it, and as it hit the ground the lid momentarily opened. It took me to another place where I kept visualizing his body falling. Shortly thereafter, I made the piece, “Falling Into Death”.
AS: “Everything Happens At the Same Time” seems to have 2 parts: 2011 to 2014 and 2015 to 2019. Can you elaborate what’s behind this partition and how did this series evolve?
Rhonda Wall: The first part of the series was shown at Spring/Break Art Show in 2015, curated by Renée Riccardo. It consists of 22 pieces – twelve 48 x 36 inches pieces, five 24 x 18 inches pieces, and five 16 x 20 inch pieces. I always work on smaller pieces that relate to each of the larger works. In the smaller ones, the background is paper on board, but they also have paint and drawing in them.
The second part of the series from 2015 to the present has nine 36 x 96 inch pieces of Sci Fi performance landscapes from the 21st century. Using geometric, abstract backgrounds with figurative collage, this series brings together sociological/historical/political events with my personal life. On a surreal stage, I use world events to create personal fictions. I started these pieces in mostly black, white and gray values, but eventually added more color. This series also includes smaller works in a variety of sizes. Altogether, there are 30 pieces.
AS: You have a painting element in your work. What role does it play?
Rhonda Wall: Paint plays a major role in my work. The background colors and design elements set the stage and composition. Collage is just another material to bring this show into production. The paint is the first act and the final act.
AS: You also had a performative element. Can you tell me a bit about it (example of a project would be great) and how do you see it in relationship to your work today?
Rhonda Wall: My work has always had a performative aspect, from literal performances to my pieces in the series “Everything Happens at the Same Time”. For the cast of characters in my painting/collages I am using images from the Internet, old computer books, 1960s magazine ads, my photographs, and many other sources.
AS: How do you see your evolution as an artist from your earlier work to today?
Rhonda Wall:I am still telling a story about survival with humor and hope – World Woman, The Disappearance of a Malaysian Airplane, Solar Panel People, IED detection, End Your Policies of Hate, Unfit, End the Government Shutdown, A Birds Nest, The Invention of the Mouse, An Eclipse, Telephone City, Twitter War, My Choice, Praying Mantises, Bring Good Luck If You Don’t Destroy Them, Keyboards and RAM are Turned Into Quilts, The Sun Is Hot, The Campaign, Solar Trees, Electric Vehicles, Where Are The Tapes, Toxic Waste, Integrated Circuits, The iCloud, Do You Have Your Selfie Stick, and The Blue Wave is Coming Again, Stay Tuned!
AS: What is happening in your studio these days?
Rhonda Wall: I am working on new 48 x 72 inch pieces. The pieces that I have just finished depict everyday life – A Person is Eating a Plum, As the World Turns Now Into Darkness, It All Started at the Car Wash, We Are Bleeding, Purple and Pink Roses, Yellow Vests, Bonsai Trees Are Stolen, Ice is Melting, and We Must Fight for Survival.
All photos are courtesy of the artist