The hairdresser, and the pleasure of being somewhere else: two of the big recent absences of life in Britain happen to be the two chief subjects of black British artist Hurvin Anderson’s seductive paintings. They seem to recall a lost world. And unlike many painters who have said lockdown was a continuation of solitary studio existence, Anderson was disarmed. “It was horrible, I didn’t want to work. Mentally it was, is any of this relevant? I thought after such a strange moment, this might all be irrelevant.”
Eventually, “as time went on I realised I had to keep going,” he adds, and he created last year in London a rapturous/discordant series based on photographs of Jamaica’s “inhospitable” north coast: derelict buildings overrun by luxuriant, rampant vegetation (“Jungle Garden”, “Limestone Wall”); palms overhanging concrete remnants, dwarfing tiny figures (“Grace Jones”); new hotels shooting up, bright cubes on cobalt skies (“Higher Heights”).
They are transporting, exotic, yet distil the dislocating experience of that “strange moment” of the first lockdown. They feel intensely “relevant”: evoking floating uncertain worlds where nature reclaims the man-made amid tensions of change and modernity, interiority and otherness, these paintings unfold deep anxieties of 21st-century existence, heightened by the pandemic.
I talk to the artist by Zoom and phone ahead of the paintings’ unveiling at a major exhibition next month, the Arts Club of Chicago’s Anywhere but Nowhere. The title, from KC White’s reggae song about alienation, is fitting: no British painter treads a more tremulous line between beauty and disquiet, and especially between the utopias and dystopias of post-colonial myth and reality.
Anderson, 55, a broad-shouldered, patient man with long dreadlocks flecked with grey and wide steady eyes, speaks slowly and softly, pacing his answers. His paintings similarly slow down the viewer. “No One Remembers”, at nine metres the exhibition’s largest work, meanders against surging greenery like a stroll along the street: brightly painted abstract strips suggest hoardings, stairways, store fronts, shipping containers, representing, Anderson says, “the kind of vernacular art in Jamaica people naturally just do, putting dabs and dots on a wall, murals, graffiti, messy lumps of things they decorate with colour”. “Water Meets Concrete” is a glimpse, “like an oasis”, of hidden water beneath foliage and architecture, which Anderson recollects as “a perfect moment [of] something disfigured by its surroundings”.
Paths and steps are blocked, concrete walkways lead nowhere, trees disrupt entrances, the eye shifts restlessly, looking for a way into these quizzical paintings. Anderson says that here he “entered a new place, slightly unsure. Actually through making paintings you engage with questions you’re unsure about. My struggle with Jamaica: I don’t know it and I know it. I have this romantic vision of it and a lot of the painting is fighting that romance.”
The eighth and youngest child in a working-class Birmingham family, and the only one born in the UK, Anderson was “the English boy in the Jamaican conversation”, his imagination fired by tales of “the other place”. He “grew up with people drawing, my brothers drew”. Initial visual influences were also Ras Daniel Heartman’s LP covers — “figures with dreadlocks, an inspiration, always there” — and a Birmingham church hall exhibition by black teacher Gilroy Brown. Anderson’s parents “came from a time when it was very tough”; as he set out to be an artist, “they never really said anything, but they never said no, which was important: if they’d said no I’m not sure I’d have had the resistance.”
“Slightly late” — at 30 — “for a multitude of reasons”, Anderson went to art school, where “there weren’t many students of colour, it was a closed society”. He emerged fully formed, “bloody-minded”, he says, in ignoring the bias against painting at the time, and “having had the chance to see what’s around”. This was “early on [black British conceptual artists] Sonia Boyce, Keith Piper — in them I picked up some threads” — work by his mentor Peter Doig, historical exhibitions including Gustave Courbet (“portraits in different guises, wow, how far ahead can you be?”) and Richard Diebenkorn’s abstracted “Ocean Park” at the Whitechapel in 1994. Crucially, while “looking at lots of painting I became aware of myself, and of the black arts movement, and what was happening in America”.
His immediate and lasting achievement was to bring social currents and race politics into refined, meditative, richly textured, stained, layered yet laconic painting. The breakthrough “Ball Watching” features black kids lined up by a pond, waiting, wondering how to retrieve their football. The setting, Handsworth Park in Birmingham, where Anderson played in childhood, is magically transformed into liminal spaces, like moving screens of memory, where narratives of estrangement and exclusion in black British life unravel.
The barber shop series addresses the same theme from the viewpoint of interiors. “Is it OK to be black?” (2016), a dizzying blurry parade of bottles, jars, mirrors, lined with sketches of black men, is the most significant panting to have been exhibited in a Turner Prize show this century. Identity drama made edgy by elusive figuration/abstraction, the barber shop paintings are light of touch but invest local, prosaic instants with the authority of art history: Morandi updated for the multicultural Midlands. The sugar pink “Flat Top”, the title alluding to both haircut style and modernist flatness, is going to Chicago alongside skeletal versions of the barber compositions abbreviated into monochrome geometric patterns.
Longing and belonging are the undercurrents linking the landscapes and interiors, within the arena of contemporary British and Caribbean history painting. The British art world, Anderson says, is “much more open now”. In December, he will be a central figure in Tate’s Art from Britain and the Caribbean, a landmark show, politically urgent but also drawing attention to an emerging global phenomenon: black artists, charged with an essential subject, are enthrallingly driving and reinventing the medium of painting.
When Anderson was at art school, Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall had begun pioneering depictions of black people in sites of leisure and pleasure, pushing towards an agenda for inclusion because “when you go to an art museum, the thing you’re least likely to encounter is a picture of a black person. When it comes to ideas about art and about beauty, the black figure is absent.” Now Anderson visits Chicago as a senior voice in a movement that is still, in the history of painting, very young, unpredictable, open to change. “Part of this moment now is not just that we’re projecting ourselves outwards, it’s how we think about ourselves,” he says. “Regardless of the system, we have our right to have our say.”