'Hurvin Anderson: Backdrop' at CAM Takes Viewers Between Two Worlds
“Hurvin Anderson: Backdrop” is the first of three exhibitions curated by Jeffrey Uslip at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis that explores connections between personal cultural backgrounds and experiences of race, alterity and equality (Anderson is followed by Mark Bradford, an African-American resident of south-central LA, in May 2016 and Kelley Walker, a caucasian New Yorker, next September).
On display through Dec. 27, Anderson’s work draws on his experiences as a child of Jamaican parents who settled in the UK after WWII: Themes of inclusion/exclusion, being British/being Caribbean, being an insider/being an outsider weave through his work, says Uslip.
Especially noticeable, almost tangible, in his work is the liminal tension of acquiring an identity and even heritage—themes that became especially apparent during Anderson’s 2002 artist residency in Trinidad, when he said “everything about me got questioned”—if he was English, black, Caribbean, Jamaican.
Anderson exists in and between two worlds and puts the viewer into his lived position through his work. Some of his paintings—ones of the Caribbean that are vivid with island hues and full of life; ones that make you want to belong to that place—have metal grills in the foreground that exclude you from the actions and setting of the background. You have to peer through the starburst patterns, eternally frustrated at the futility of gaining access to what is, after all, a painting. Depicted spaces like bars, meant for community and inclusion, are now about exclusion, says Uslip.
The theme emerges again in Anderson’s barbershop paintings, based on salons in the UK that sprang up after the Jamaican migration. “When [these immigrants] arrived in the UK, they experienced different forms of racism, and one of those forms was that white barbers wouldn’t cut the hair of people of color,” says Uslip. “So these salons came to the fore in people’s attics, in their domestic spaces. Like the bar that you see in ‘Welcome Carib,’ the barbershop was another kind of discursive space, except in those paintings, you’ll see that the fourth wall is removed. So instead of being barred from the paintings, you can actually enter it. You take the subject position of both barber and spy, looking into someone’s room—insider, outsider; inclusion, exclusion; interior spaces, exterior spaces.”
Uslip mentions the lack of ceillings in some, creating an “atmospheric feel,” and how the subjects are turned away from your position as the viewer, making them seem vulnerable. But some things are amiss: “Objects in the background are just floating off the walls,” Anderson explains, hinting that painting is not always a steadfast depiction of life-as-it-is. Anderson says that his paintings are translations of his experiences, and as is the case with translations, the end product is never precisely the original.
As he paints, Anderson draws from photographs rather than memory, creating distances of time, geography and emotion between output and lived experience. The technique also conflates “the seemingly objective, critical and truthful nature of photography and the subjective impulse of painting,” says Uslip. “This is the first show to exhibit Hurvin’s paintings alongside photographs, sculpture and works on paper—and that’s where you see the photography looking fragmented or blurry. So it’s again recalling the same kind of tropes that are in the painting but making the relationship between photography and painting explicit.”
Anderson manipulates his photography, Caribbean island scenes, by confounding the idea that it is subjective: By positioning the camera at the same subject, but from different approaches for each shot, Anderson’s two-or-more-part photos have obstacles built into their joining. You find yourself struggling to stitch together the comprehensive whole and find truth in the fragmentation—even though, in some respects, it is already there.