Hurvin Anderson at the Studio Museum Harlem, New York
Modern Painters
Ara H. Merjian
December 2009

Comprising seven paintings and nine works on paper, the small, tight show "Hurvin Anderson: Peter’s Series 2007-2009," at the Studio Museum in Harlem, had as a motif that celebrated hive of language and lore, bustle and buzz, the barbershop. The subject seemed especially apposite to Harlem’s 125th Street. In Anderson’s canvases, however, the familiar site is drained of its chatter, its tumult, even of the remnants of hair one expects to find strewing the floor. In fact, the only substantial clues to what the paintings depict were in the preparatory works on the gallery’s first wall. Three small studies in acrylic on paper revealed, in varying shades of gray, the telltale objects of the barber’s trade.

Some of Anderson’s related canvases, such as Barbershop (2006, not in this show), portray forests of shavers and wires hanging from walls, hair-care bottles, and clumps of hair scattered about the bases of swivel chairs. But in his "Peter’s" series, the London-based artist abstracts both the barbershop’s name and its particulars. Five large oils dominated the show. Lined up side by side on the gallery’s main wall, they all portrayed the same shallow room, within the same dimensions and using the same basic color scheme. In fact, in these paintings Anderson seems to be tending to an almost exclusive treatment of size and hue. They omit even the spare furniture and other objects that populate some of his canvases, culminating in (or beginning with?) the near total abstraction of Peter’s 3 (2007). That work depicts only four blue planes of wall, reduced to large quadrangles bounded by the thin white wash of floor and ceiling.

The fact that the show’s most emphatically abstract canvases predated the relatively figurative ones suggested several questions regarding Anderson’s method: Does the "Peter’s" series conceal some elliptical narrative that is only gradually revealed? Do the pictures constitute formal variations on a theme — a theme only eventually integrated into more formal investigations?

Peter’s Cobalt Blue (acrylic and collage, 2007) joins floor and wall in the form of paper cutouts and blue wash. Here Anderson seems to be less concerned with exploring the series’ theme than with its geometric and formal aspects, which are only fitfully, and incompletely, fleshed out. Parts of Peter’s 1 (2007) and Peter’s Series: Back (2008) still verge on geometric abstraction. Pictures and mirrors, speakers and a clock (?) on the wall have all been rendered merely as opaque shapes. As its title suggests, the latter painting shows a figure in a chair from behind. But figuration is elsewhere drained and effaced. The lines demarcating floor and ceiling from side walls take on an autonomous energy, joining other outlines and planes in a play of forms that Mondrian or Malevich might envy. The picture is also reminiscent of the work of Francis Bacon — not in its brushwork, for where Bacon’s is frenzied and aggressive Anderson’s is all cool composure, but in the interaction between a figure and an elided space. Like Bacon, Anderson began with a photograph: a snapshot of the attic barbershop where his father, an Afro-Caribbean immigrant to Britain, used to get his hair cut. But if Anderson’s works derive from personal memories, they convey less the texture of nostalgia than striking geometries. Even the anonymous figure of Peter’s Series: Back sits huddled in pictorial abeyance, its individuality subordinate to the spatial coordinates so sparsely — yet decisively — rendered.