Christina Leslie's Portraits

N.L.S., A New Local Space

Deborah Caroll Anzinger's artist run residency and exhibition space in Kingston


Leasho Johnson's Provocative Re-interpretation in 'Canopy Guild'

Light Sensitive

Marlon James' black and whites

Annalee Davis: ON THE MAP

Caribbean Political Documentary

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Biennial Notes: Thread

Katrina Coombs, Absence
The 2014 Jamaica Biennial is now coming to a close on Sunday March 15th with artists talks planned to talk about new practices and directions.  At major exhibitions there is always a highlight on the biggest most glamorous, glaring or loud practices. High politics, high shine, high rhetoric, high tech is trendy. Within art scenes, markets and circles this is all of course to serves its purpose to ensure that the event is remembered and thus able to enjoy continuity and growth in the eyes of the organizers. Sometimes however some work which is more reflective and less locally explosive and assertive can get overlooked. I wanted to just put together a few thoughts to call attention to the work of three artists from this other side where I can see connections. The work that struck me includes the exhibits by Katrina Coombs, Judith Salmon and Miriam Smith.

Katrina Coombs
Coombs’ work strikes me as kind of woven hood without the remaining parts of the shirt for me to qualify it as a ‘hooded’ item of clothing. I suppose I am seeking to make the connection with her work because of the relevance of the hoodie or hooded figures in visual culture and international affairs. In the UK, the minority working class teens who don the repurposed athletic wear are literally called just ‘hoodies’ as a way of referring to the imminent social threat they pose. We are also now quite familiar with the story from the U.S. of the black teenager who was seen as a threat because of the hood which he wore. As we are reminded by countless films the hood also spelled danger for blacks in the southern states of the U.S. during much of the last century’s history. The one which comes most to mind is ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’. Nevertheless Coombs has only suggested this hooded sweatshirt and gown which is so prominent and perhaps this is the actual intrigue of the work. There are actually two hoods in the work that appear to be and inner hood and an outer hood. She reflects on this when we talk to her as she speaks about ‘The Other’ or the other and her interest in perceptions of threat and isolation. The woven hood in her work in the Biennial also becomes a woven womb in other recent work seen in The Edna Manley College’s recent staff show and thus extends the links we make to the form.

Miriam Hinds
Justice Denied...1600 and Still Counting (detail), Source:NGJ Catalogue

Miriam Smiths’ work involves canvases mounted stained, scraped or printed monochrome with patches and groupings of a thick off-white thread or cord. White thread is sewn down by red thread; cocoons and tufts of white thread dangle by a single red thread and  white thread becomes scars on canvas which are sewn up or sewn down by the red thread. The wounds, pods, eggs and other symbols feel like abstract tales of birth, transformation, healing and pain. When asked about the use of red in the work she doesn’t point to any one meaning but talks about using it for all its potential symbolism. What does red mean? fertility, love, anger, good fortune and any other more personal significance. Coombs also talks about red as a powerful colour filled with diverse information attached. There is also a look about the work which reminds of smaller revised versions of Robert Motherwell’s canvases with ovoid shapes and horizons.

Judith Salmon, Palimsests for life
Judith Salmon continues this play between thread and its use to join and make connections. She says that thread can be used to repair things, to put things together or rather hold things together. As we travel from one artists’ work to the other the thread gets looser and looser and thinner and thinner. Coombs’ proto-hood is tightly woven and neat in its appearance while Smiths’ thread is ravelled, hanging and winding around forms and suppressed by other things. Salmon’s thread however is more like remains or cast-off. It is one of the bits and pieces from personal items or things we encounter in life that are suspended or float in the hardened wax. Her work is somehow less referential or conceptual than Coombs’ work and feels less vigorous or dictated than Smith’s work. These shallow wax rectangles are more like reflective traces of life. They present some kind of evidence that is very personal but relatable. We all have these bits floating around.

Judith Salmon, Palimsests for life (detail)
Aesthetically and materially they show linkages in their work but I think what interests me is how I am understanding something about how different each artist’s use of the materials is. This is expected as each artist has a very different set of generational and educational experiences. There are on the other hand so many similarities however as all have connections as staff or as alumni of Edna Manley College and both Coombs and Smith have involvement in the Textiles Department there. I could make the comparison that all three are women but it is arguably the thing which ties them all together or just a background fact. They are artists who show work which traces concerns with feminist thought, body politics, conceptual Art and the list goes on. I don’t know what specifically accounts for similarities in aesthetics and concerns in artistic practice. Certain places will definitely produce certain head spaces. Places as small as Jamaica are bound to do that as the pool of interests and ideas bounces from one artist to the other in constant dialogue and metamorphosis.  It makes me wish that all three artists could work together on a project or show to unearth further the potential energy of their ideas.

Katrina Coombs will form part of the artist talk panels at the closing event at The National Gallery of Jamaica at 1:30pm on Sunday March 15th, 2015. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Impression of Marlon James' 'King Yellowman'

Marlon James, detail of 'King Yellowman', Source: The 2014 Jamaica Biennial Catalogue, The National Gallery of Jamaica
When the British Broadcasting Service [BBC]was first set up in 1927 its mission was to 'educate, inform and entertain'. Successful Art institutions such as Tate Modern, [currently the most visited Modern Art museum in the world ] might subscribe to something similar because viewing Art has become big business with entertainment seen as very much central to that project.  But Art in the past was called upon to do a great deal more, such as to illuminate and  inspire, glorify and celebrate, also to move and sometimes, to redeem.  How useful are any of these criteria for looking at Art today when relevance to the contemporary moment,  as articulated by a culturally diverse and globally connected world, is so overwhelmingly prized?

Such thoughts were circulating on a recent visit to the Jamaica Biennial where I was struck by a work which supremely fulfills many of the above mentioned criteria. Hanging in the central hall under the stairs, it is approached without warning or fanfare and were it not so distinguished, might easily be overlooked.  The work itself shows the head and torso of a man sunk in stygian gloom apparently standing in a room but gazing beyond it,  engrossed in his own thoughts, and lit only by a tiny crack of light on a narrow strip of his shoulder, neck and hat.  A stray speck of light somehow creeps round to the other side of his head and catches the pale eyelashes of his left eye but this is about all the light that is permitted in a drastically subdued tonal register.

Marlon James, King Yellowman, Source: The 2014 Jamaica Biennial Catalogue, The National Gallery of Jamaica
No one looking at this portrait could mistake its mood for anything less than deeply lugubrious and this impression is enhanced by the subfusc tones of the man's clothing, which is rakishly respectable, and of the space itself, where the air feels heavy, and still.  The sober brown palette simultaneously endorses and effaces the personality before us.  It's impossible to tell whether a doorway, dimly visible behind him offers any way out.

The truly remarkable thing about this work by Marlon James is its severe restraint.  James has granted us precious little visual excitement and only the minimum of information as to the man's identity except of course in the title of the piece, 'King Yellowman'. It is a mark of the work's universality however that we are in no need of any more information in order to bring our own sympathies to bear on the immense sorrow before us.  Nothing extraneous has been allowed to intrude or distract us from this overwhelming quality, there is nowhere to go and nowhere to hide.  Within this hermetic space we are forced to confront the limits of our own compassion and in doing so summon up from ourselves our own equivalences of kind and degree. Surely only the stony-hearted could turn away from such a work unaffected. 

James is known for his many remarkable portraits, often of the troubled, disaffected or marginal among us. Typically these photographs are made, not taken, and involve complex transactions and negotiations between artist and subject which leave their trace in the resulting image.  This latest example is no exception, its introspection, resignation and inner despair, glimpsed and intuited, is undeniably of the moment. Whilst it bears no superficial resemblance to the typical celebrity portrait it offers more than a hint of the strains, insecurities and perils suffered by many who inhabit them, whose public and private image frequently diverge. A glance at Yellowman's biography would reveal that he has experienced more than his fair share of life's vicissitudes. In this work, James has managed to convey most of them with the utmost circumspection and skill.

- Prudence Lovell

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Virtual Curation & Alternative Biennials

Since last summer, Kathryn Buford, editor/ curator of, and myself have been speaking about the art culture in Jamaica with the aim to collaborate on a project together. I had the chance to work with Kathryn previously when she interviewed me for one of her online articles. With the upcoming Jamaica Biennial we hit on the idea of presenting together a sort of alternative biennial via this blog with Kathryn making the major curatorial choices.
She has assembled a group of artists who she feel have a dialogue and sympathy with issues tackled in Jamaican Art. These artists however are situated in a different cultural space. In a sense she has not curated a show which highlights who was excluded from amongst local artists but rather who else could have been included using a different curatorial eye. This repeats the endgame of the Jamaica Biennial but I think of it more as making connections between the local and the global. For the alternative biennial that has been curated please visit this link. Until the Biennial closes in March there will also be shorter more focused discussions on specific artists or groups of artists being published on this blog.You are welcome to join in the conversation.

Other Articles of Interest

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Time-based Media @ THE 2014 JAMAICA BIENNIAL

Courtesy of The National Gallery of Jamaica, Renee Cox – Zulu Man Tree (from Sacred Geometry), digital photograph
I am currently facilitating a course at Edna Manley College called 'Time-based Media'. It is one of three Media Art courses I developed under the guidance of Annie Hamilton, Hope Brooks and Petrona Morrison back in 2006. I had just finished my MA in Interactive Media in the UK and had many ideas about how to integrate the things I had learned as well as the pathway my artistic practice was taking down the road of hybridizing traditional art method and media with new media. I only taught the course for one year before leaving to study in Asia but after returning have been teaching it for the past year.

 Many things have changed. The Jamaica Biennial now has numerous multimedia works on show and in most but not in all cases there is a sense that artists who work with new media are allowed to inhabit the same privileged gallery space as artists using traditional media. I asked my first year students taking the Time-based Media course to visit the Biennial and in particular to engage with the work of artists such as Renee Cox, Petrona Morrison, Sheena Rose, Olivia Mc Gilchrist, Di-Andre C Davis and Storm Saulter as well as other less locally known artists using new media. Often work using new media can feel perplexing to audiences as it may be less familiar as an art medium for them. I asked the students to think about:

- The design of the work (images as well as physical placement of equipment)
- The equipment and physical parts used in actualizing the work
-  The images and technique used in the work
- and finally to ponder what concepts and sensations emerge in the work when they look at it.

You are also invited to visit the Biennial and discuss these and other questions about the new media work on show.