Hurvin Anderson speaks softly, haltingly, or at least he did the other day during a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario, wisely letting his often large-scale art do most of the big talking.
So far, in North America at least, Anderson’s “listenership” is modest. But in Britain, where he was born to Jamaican immigrant parents in 1965, he’s something of a player, not least for having studied under Peter Doig at the Royal College in the mid-1990s. (Today, they’re pals and even share the same New York dealer.) Anderson’s since gone on to have his work collected by Charles Saatchi, Tate Britain and the Government Art Collection, among others, and in 2009 scored a solo showcase at the Tate Modern. A couple of years ago, a painting from his popular 2007-09 Peter’s Series, depicting living-room/attic barbershops catering to an Afro-Caribbean clientele in Anderson’s hometown of Birmingham, sold for $2.4-million at auction at Christie’s in London.
A quartet of those barbershop paintings are currently on view at the AGO in Toronto, part of an exhibition of almost 30 Anderson oils and acrylics, mixed-media drawings, sculptures and photos taking up the entire cavernous, maze-like top floor of the Contemporary Tower designed by Frank Gehry. Titled Backdrop, the exhibition is largely a reprise of the survey of the same name hosted last fall by the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; it marks Anderson’s first solo bow in Canada.
As it turns out, Doig put in a guest appearance alongside his friend last Tuesday evening at a by-invitation event at the AGO. The two spoke to members of the gallery’s Curators’ Circle, members of which pay anywhere from $2,000 to $25,000 a year for various perks, including access to “signature events.” Interestingly, Doig’s name didn’t come up earlier in the day during Anderson’s media tour of Backdrop with Jeffrey Uslip, chief curator of CAM (SL). Some might have called this lacuna intentional since Anderson’s art, in both painterliness and content, owes much to Doig, who’s six years Anderson’s senior and, of course, the more famous internationally. Perhaps it was felt the connections are obvious (especially to the paintings Doig has done since relocating his primary base to Trinidad in 2002) and therefore in no need of being voiced. Perhaps, too, the organizers – they include Adelina Vlas, the AGO’s associate curator of contemporary art – felt that here, with this survey, Anderson has an opportunity to stand outside Doig’s shadow and have his practice judged on its own merits, more or less.
What distinguishes the Anderson oeuvre is a profound in-betweeness. Much of the work at the AGO shunts between depictions of Caribbean milieus (jungle, water, pear and mango trees, bars) and the Caribbean-inflected settings and products of Anderson’s native Britain (the barber shop paintings, rendered in Britannic hues of blue, red and white; a series of four Warhol-esque consumer-themed “sculptures,” mounted on sconces, including recreations of take-out boxes for Mother’s Chicken and Juici, two fast-food chains catering to Britain’s Caribbean population). The “outdoor” works, which are the largest in the show, flirt simultaneously with representation and abstraction, while “indoor” scenes such as Peter’s: Sitter’s II and Peter’s:Sitter’s III are a Bacon-like dance of flatness with perspectivity and volume. And insofar as photos seem to have served as the basis for much of Backdrop’s imagery, there’s also the feeling the artist’s memories and dreams have been just as important in terms of execution.
The very first painting a visitor encounters nicely encapsulates the entirety of the show. Called Welcome: Carib (2005), it’s big (150 centimetres by 210 centimetres); there’s an indeterminacy to what you’re seeing, a push-pull between foreground (Anderson’s overlay of a metal barrier that looks, variously, like a spider’s web, glass shattered by a spray of bullets and the principal motif of a wall tapestry) and back (what seems to be a club with an air-conditioner, pin-ups tacked to the wall, a condiments holder). Decorative letters attached to the security grille spell the word “Welcome” – but the barrier and the space behind it seem to offer anything but. Indeed, it’s an inside the spectator feels happy to be experiencing from the outside. The painting’s lack of “lush” also is a rebuke of sorts of the paradisiacal promise the Caribbean has offered non-Caribbeans over the centuries.
Is this the type of thing a native Trinidadian or Jamaican artist might paint? I couldn’t say one way or the other with any authority. Yet it’s clear that even though Anderson has travelled to those two island countries, the paintings and photographs “from” there convey less a sense of return and connection than the experience of a world seen and imagined by a visitor. Put another way, these are representations of a Caribbean produced by an eye accommodated if not entirely accustomed to living in England’s “green and pleasant land,” among its “nation of shopkeepers,” even though, as a second-generation Briton, this “I” wonders if the accommodation has been for the best. One painting at the AGO, from 2015, is titled, tellingly I think, Grafting and features a barely visible human figure high among the branches of a fenced orchard of mixed fruits. Another, 2013’s Diego, is of a tall tropical plant that at the same time resembles a Christmas evergreen.
Sometimes described as a “Jamaican-British artist,” Anderson is at once exploring and creating a rich, imaginative territory represented by the hyphen between “Jamaican” and “British.” With its suggestions of distance and remove, insubstantiality, loss and displacement, Backdrop is about as perfect a title as you’d want for what Anderson’s put up at the AGO.