Carol Rhodes turns the world upside down

The strange, no-man's-land aerial views of Carol Rhodes' exquisite, detailed paintings make demands on the viewer. And they're all the better for that, says Tom Lubbock

Nobody says that painting is dead any more. We all agree that it's thriving, burgeoning and free to be what it jolly well likes: abstract, figurative, decorative, photographic, typographic, cartoony, hand-made, machine-made, chance-made, surreal, minimal, packed with quotations from Old Masters, meticulously copied from postcards, and painted with any instrument and on any surface you please. But the one thing it mustn't be is too complicated.

Like any long-evolved art form, painting has a great deal to offer. For most of its current viewers and buyers, however, that's just what they don't want. A painting that was working at full strength and stretch would make excessive demands on their attention. The painting they like is as snappy as a logo and can be consumed at a glance.

Artists oblige. It's easier for them, too. Painting is so rich in its possibilities and its history, it's an embarrassment, a bewildering encumbrance. The task for many contemporary painters is to come up with a way of painting that will burden them with as few decisions as possible - and provide their grateful viewers with instant yield. The results are to be seen in art fairs all over the world: painting, not dead, but radically reduced in scope.

If you're wondering, though, what an alternative might look like, in contemporary hands, I have a suggestion. In fact, I'm involved with the exhibition in question: I wrote an essay for its catalogue. The show is of Carol Rhodes' work. There are about 30 of her small paintings on the walls of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, dating from the early 1990s to now. These paintings, with their markedly low-key palette, do not cry out to you across the room. They hold very little for the swiftly passing viewer. They wait for your close attention. When they get it, they unfold into an experience that's large in resonance and complexity.

Rhodes is in her late forties and lives in Glasgow. Her mature work has always been a kind of landscape painting. The views are invented, or partly invented: their elements are drawn from factual photographic sources, assembled and composed. Her scenes are normally set in the middle of nowhere, in some contemporary inter-zone between town and country, where open land is arbitrarily punctuated by piecemeal utilitarian developments. They have titles like Picnic Site, Construction Site, Sea and Motorway, Forest and Road, Car Park (Night), Factory Roof, Countryside or Business Park (Night). And they are generally seen from above, in quite a distant aerial view.

These elements - this angle, this subject, this semi-imaginary procedure - turn out to be profoundly enabling. They add up to the opposite of a gimmick: an idea that bestows great freedom of operation. They allow Rhodes to put a painting together in a way that can mobilise all the resources of the art. These lay-outs of roads, woods, industry, habitation and green space are pictures that perform simultaneously on a host of levels.

For a start, obviously, they describe. They describe a stretch of land, a fictional though not fantastical terrain, and as with any representational painting, your first impulse is to try to follow the description, to work out what kind of place this is. It is not always straightforward. The pictures invite recognition but also hold obstacles: the inherent bizarreness of these inter-zone areas, the defamiliarisation of an overhead perspective, the way Rhodes' painting sometimes underdefines the world (while at other times picking it out in fiddly, miniaturist detail).

You're drawn into a cognitive engagement. No scene entirely eludes your scrutiny, but in each one there will some element that defies identification - the whole upper half of Construction Site, for instance. But what keeps you engaged is that the surface is always painted very attentively. You feel that, even if you can't tell, the picture knows what everything is. It also tells a story, a story of an unusual kind. These are economic landscapes. They declare the history of their development, of roads being laid, sites cleared, woods managed, plants installed, rubbish tipped. The overhead view shows it all up, like a plan. You can often imagine a sequence. And since this is a story of human purposes, it can easily take a comic turn. You see projects that collide, snarl up, peter out, go off on a limb, get lost, plough ahead blindly.

Beneath the description and the story, there is a current of visual metaphor. Rhodes' geography continually recalls other matters, other sensations. The lie of the land can imitate something cerebral - a circuit board, a chemical retort, a system, a diagram - or equally something edible - assorted sweets, a cheese, chocolate cake. In Picnic Site, the lake in the wood is a poached egg on toast.

There's a lurking carnality, though it's not the old association of rolling landscape with rolling curves of naked flesh, but something more visceral, a feeling of cut meat, bones, veins, fat. In the middle of Industrial Landscape, a dark round turd seems to have been dumped. Rhodes makes you realise how painting is inherently an art of subliminal metamorphosis, a medium in which anything can turn into anything else.

And above all this, there is pattern. It comes up so clearly (another overhead effect, strengthened by a schematic use of colour) that the temptation is to say "almost abstract". But no. Spatial depths, and the functions and textures of things, can never be ignored. The formal drama here isn't about pure lines and pure shapes. It's about nodes and connecting paths and dividing barriers; about empty ground and solidly occupied areas and sudden outbreaks of bittiness; about rough and smooth surfaces, bumps and hollows.

Rhodes' compositions have an air of studied contingency. They're like structures that have grown as they go along, through extension, accretion, one bit tacked onto the next, in an improvised relay of departures and appendices. Her framing and cropping of scenes seems intended to deprive them of stable design or focus. They're often split sharply into two separate parts by a horizontal divider, top- or bottom-heavy, like a TV with vertical hold problems. Yet somehow these teetering configurations do hold.

There's a dimension of historical awareness, too. I've never spotted anything like an explicit quotation, but there's a recurring evocation of earlier art: the toy-town architecture of early Sienese painting, 17th-century Dutch landscape (itself often economically inclined), the exquisitely, comically calculated designs of Stubbs, the precise vagueness of early Corot. These allusions are neither sycophantic nor ironic. They're in a dialogue, conscious of how the art of the past is both strange and available.

Description, story, metaphor, pattern, allusion - and I could add more levels of activity, such as their carefully diffident brushwork, or their luminous use of dulled-out colours, or their moodiness. But that handful is enough. It's enough to suggest that here is a form of painting unembarrassed by the gifts of its medium, in full working order.

And the really mysterious thing is the way that Rhodes holds her various registers in equal balance. You can never conclude that her painting is ultimately interested in its pattern-making, or in its subject-matter, or its emotional charge. It doesn't have a dominant agenda. All the different levels are working strongly and working together, interacting, compounding, and not necessarily resolving into a determinate sense; an "all about". When it's going at maximum strength, painting doesn't make sense. That's one reason people resist. But if you'd like to see it practised as an art, rather than as a brand, this is work to watch.

Carol Rhodes, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (0131-624 6200) to 24 February