The thirteen paintings and one diptych, most intimately sized but some of epic dimensions, in Hurvin Anderson’s first New York solo gallery exhibition can be classified as landscapes: They picture the lush, equatorial scenery of Trinidad, where the London-based artist spent some time a few years ago. That they are all predominantly green thus stands to reason. Why, then, did the omnipresent verdancy (in all its guises—lime to teal, olive to emerald) feel at times superfluous, a gilding-the-lily excess?
The answer, I think, is that Anderson is at heart just as much an abstract painter as he is a figurative one (certain earlier canvases verge on total abstraction, and a suite of domestic interiors, shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2009, are studded with nonrepresentational elements). And while most of these images read as depictive, all have liberal passages untethered to reality, and a few—namely A Scene From Rocker Baptism (all works 2010) andNorthern Range—are kept from the bounds of abstraction only by their titles and our knowledge that, well, grass is green. But the tension does not emerge as irresolution; on the contrary, Anderson foregrounds his process of working between seemingly antithetical genres—the toggle between rendering nature and freeing a mark from the burden of mimesis; the clash of the landscapist’s mandate to limn deep space with the abstractionist’s to invert or annul figure-ground relationships—lending conceptual consequence to what is undeniably prepossessing work.
In some instances, the dynamic is overt, a matter of pictorial logic. A central cluster of vegetation in the diptych, Untitled, is continuous across the pair of panels, literary staging a confrontation between the interior space established in the composition and the exterior one imposed by its edge; Beaded Curtain (Red Apples) identifies in its title the dual function played by an allover crimson chevron design as fruit on an arboreal range and the scrim through which the greenery is glimpsed. Fences, gates, and grills operate simultaneously as objects circumscribing the countryside and geometric patterns charting the canvas surface, and a number of paintings contain diagrammatic lines evoking a viewfinder, grid, or in the case of Central, a vanishing point. While the notion of place as ideologically encoded is less urgent here than in some previous series, it persists in the presentation of each vista as somehow screened or framed; one work is plainly titled Constructed View. Mediation as a theme is further suggested by the show’s name, “Subtitles,” and is also present on a technical level—Anderson paints from memories, photographs, drawings, and projections. (Dislocation obtains on the biographical front, too: Born in England to Jamaican parents, Anderson has said that “there’s always a kind of disconnection, there is always a sense of distance in the work.”) And if these methods disassemble landscape’s conventions, abstraction, or abstract mark-making, is inspected as a category no less pure. Here it assumes a dizzying heterogeneity of form and application. Maracas Series—Pluck, to cite one example of many, conjoins diluted runnel and opaque blot; audacious stroke and calligraphic tangle; scumble, dot, impasto, and wash, splintering the very terrain it defines.
If Anderson’s paintings have contemporary affinities in practices (especially with that of Peter Doig, his former teacher), the theoretical contexts they summon are well-rooted—in particular those teleological forecasts about the relationship between his chosen genres as articulated by critics including Kenneth Clark and Clement Greenberg; the latter wrote, in 1949, of the evolutionary conundrum whereby French painting “was brought to the verge of abstraction in and by its very effort to transcribe visual experience with ever greater fidelity.” In Anderson’s deft hands, in ways that seem as fresh as they do time-honored, this paradox abides.