A Visual Sanctuary


Amidst all of the confusion, cacophony and political hubris being bandied about during our Carnival Season, and now during the Lenten Period, it was refreshing, if not reassuring to know that one could seek respite from the madness by visiting the exhibition at the Art Gallery of Soft Box Studios on Alcazar Street, Port of Spain.
The exhibition, which was launched at the end of 2011, does not have a title but is loosely referred to as an “End of Season Exhibition and Open House”. Over thirty-five local and regional artists present a visual smorgasbord of recent art work for art lovers and art aficionados to admire and enjoy.
Such a collection by so many artists in one physical space offers a great variety of subject matter and technique. Credit is therefore also due to the Soft Box Gallery for arranging the work in such a neat and coherent fashion, eliminating the clutter and taking special care so that the art pieces, although numerous, do not lose their individual prominence. I have seen my fair share of exhibitions where the haphazard placement of work has done an injustice to the artists and the fruits of their labour.
The display offered works by both relative newcomers and seasoned artists who have been around for decades. I was really happy to note that more experienced artists such as Lisa O’Connor and Kenwyn Critchlow are still creating new works, while also remaining true and faithful to their chosen genres. O’Connor, in my mind, remains Trinidad and Tobago’s greatest impressionist. In every sense of the word, she relies on the texture of the paint to provide the minute details. Likewise, Critchlow, has stuck to his abstract expressionism, using his vibrant and colourful brushstrokes to create beautiful sensations of form, mass and depth. Additionally, Critchlow’s palette now includes gold, which further adds to the luminosity of his newest paintings.
Another stalwart in the genre of abstract expressionism is Rex Dixon, whose piece “Before Blue Skies” possesses so much vibrancy and dynamism that it creates a novel relationship between colour and space every time one sees it. Another notable body of work from the more established group of artists is a series of “Heads” by Wendy Nanan. She uses three mannequin heads that have been coloured by UK postage stamps and accessorised with head pieces that contain outlines of Caribbean islands and continents. This series therefore creates an intriguing visual dialogue about colonialism, feminine identity and the position of the Caribbean person as well as the Caribbean diaspora on the global stage. This series, despite its apparent modesty, offered a truly fascinating and multi-level vision of the Caribbean. This work is severely under-rated and deserves much-needed recognition, intellectual discussion and analysis.
Also on display are several pieces by painter Rachel Rochford. One piece titled “Son” shows off her brilliant execution of representing the human form through the use of muted colours. Additionally, the ambiguous expression on the individual’s face immediately draws the viewer into the painting to such an extent that the viewer is tempted to engage the painted figure in conversation. There seems to be a contradiction going on here and the viewer searches for a solution, even though the reward is silence. The toned-down palette conveys a sense of calm, but the puzzling expression on the individual’s face suggests something going on behind that tranquil facade.
The relative neophytes of this art show did not disappoint. Alicia Milne’s “I Could Tell You But You Already Know” is a glazed ceramic tile, in which two female figures have their backs facing each other. Again, as in the case of Rochford, Milne creates a deep tension that breaks through the initial craft-like appearance of the work. While the piece appears to be utilitarian and decorative, the open-ended nature of the image leaves the viewer with an infinite number of interpretations, and therefore an infinite number of questions.
I was particularly intrigued with a piece by Rhoda Gayadeen called “My Bitch”. In addition to the provocative title, the artist used sterling silver to create something that deceptively resembled jewellery, but which, through her creativity, had manipulated the medium so that she now created an impractical art object that could never be worn. Again, like Rochford and Nanan, Gayadeen is making bold statements about femininity in the Caribbean environment, possibly interrogating traditional notions of beauty and subservience through this confrontational art work.
On a slightly lighter side, I was also pleased to see art in this collection that addressed the issue of nostalgia. Again, artists used traditional, almost cliché Caribbean themes, but exercised a brilliant degree of creativity in order to formulate a new analysis of old concepts. Sundiata’s “Blue Umbrella” is a typical market scene. However, the blue umbrella is a unique cerulean blue that mimics an ideal Caribbean sky. Moreover, the gesture used to create this umbrella is notably different from what was used to create any other form in the piece. Sundiata’s play with the umbrella successfully removes any connotation of the banal and the mundane since the scene now has a unique element.
Tessa Alexander’s series called “Relics of Times Past” also addresses this issue of nostalgia through her architectural watercolours. The scenes are close-ups of the older 19th century style houses of Woodbrook and Port of Spain, but Alexander’s treatment of the images conveys a sense of permanence; despite their dwindling condition, it is clear that the beauty and charm of these structures will endure.
I left this exhibition at Soft Box with a level of warmth that I have not experienced in a long time at an art exhibition. This diverse display of art reminded me that despite how many times I worry about the neglect of fine art, artists still continue to persevere and create noteworthy artwork. The final and most touching piece of this exhibition was a painting by the late Pat Bishop from her “Pan is a Star” series that was launched at Soft Box Gallery in 2009. Above all, I think that this painting, which is part of the private collection of the Gallery Director Nisha Hosein, suggests the final answer to why our artists continue in this endeavour despite the many challenges. Art can offer us the perfect sanctuary from the ills of the world. If it is respected and nurtured, it might even give us a small taste of immortality. The exhibition continues until March 31st 2012.

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