"Inspired by the island in the middle of Handsworth Park; it was, he told me, the first landscape he felt connected to, a place that exists yet is just out of reach – a sense of dislocation that is, perhaps, something experienced by many first and second-generation migrants. The composition of the painting recalls [ ....] the Isle of the Dead made by the great Romantic painter Arnold Böcklin, between 1880 and 1886; Anderson’s version is, perhaps, less literally melancholic, but still, [it stirs up] up a wistfulness and a longing, the object of which is not made explicit."
Hurvin Anderson – 'It’s questioning my history, my place' | Tate
The strongest example of Anderson's series of canvases depicting the island in the middle of Handsworth Park in Birmingham, where the artist grew up as a second-generation member of the Windrush generation, Lower Lake III testifies to Anderson's painterly dexterity, whilst simultaneously embodying the unique sense of longing that characterises his practice. Created in London, shortly after his return from an artist’s residency in Trinidad, the present work merges hazy recollections of Anderson’s youth with the impressions gathered in the tropics. Fragments of figuration and abstraction are merged with muted vibrancy and enormous expressive depth, to evoke a dislodged emotional topography of conjoined histories and volatile memories. At once familiar and tantalizingly exotic, Anderson ingeniously reclaims the visual politics of leisure spaces to tackle the complex notions of diaspora and displacement in a deeply personal and intimate vision of British suburbia that attests to a split sense of dislocation and belonging. Recently, Hurvin Anderson’s Ascent (2019) and Maracus III (2004) were exhibited to great acclaim and took centre stage in the Hayward Gallery's blockbuster survey of contemporary painting in Britain, Mixing It Up: Painting Today, and Tate Britain’s landmark group exhibition Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now, celebrating 70 years of Caribbean-British art.
Lower Lake III imbues an ostensibly quotidian park scene with a mysterious air through an adroit manipulation of translucent, atmospheric glazes. Soft and beautifully defined oil washes of watery pinks and fiery, brilliant orange pigment punctuate the middle ground of the composition and fluidly metamorphose into the lush greens of the vegetation and the vibrant blues of water and sky, bathing the surrounding landscape in ghostly shadow. Delicate marks with fine brushwork render bare branches and dense foliage soaked in diaphanous washes of colour, veiling the scenery with a pale surface thinness that makes the composition drift off into the fault zone of memory. Peter Doig’s influence is of paramount importance here, with the compositional structure and its flattened perspective echoing early masterpieces by the Scottish artist, most notably Echo Lake from 1998. Anderson’s engagement with the ambiguity of a transient place both recognisable and unknown, remembered and half-forgotten, where memory and imagination are one, also invokes works such as Doig’s Bomb Island, executed in 1991.
Hurvin Anderson’s anxious optic centres in on the childhood memories of the inaccessible body of land in the Victorian park, evoking a distinct sense of estrangement, and there is a perennial sense of distance or detachment in Anderson’s work that shines through in Lower Lake III. As the foreground falls away in an almost melancholic cascade of drips, Anderson places the scene tantalisingly out of the viewer’s grasp. We are not there and never will be. This compositional void between viewer and subject only serves to enhance a sense of distance and the past, reinforced by Anderson’s use of source imagery. The artist affirms that “memory is the trigger. I will start from an idea about a place” (Hurvin Anderson quoted in: Hossein Amirsadeghi, ed., Sanctuary: Britain’s Artists and their Studios, London, 2012, p. 366). Working from photographs, Anderson conjures highly mnemonic scenes through the documents of memory itself. “I tried to work in the studio,” the artist explains, “but it was too much, being away and stuck in a studio. So I opted for taking photographs, for seeing what the place was about” (ibid., p. 368). Anderson’s paintings are thus second-hand interpretations of a first-hand experience, combining memory and photography to capture something that can only be articulated in part, a liminal space at the threshold of past and present, caught in between recognition and disaffection.
Building up pictorial spaces in which echoes of history and personal memory are entwined, Lower Lake III is characterised by its immense sense of depth, which binds all the very best works of Anderson’s oeuvre. As Thelma Golden, director of The Studio Museum in Harlem at the time of the artist’s exhibition there, noted, “All of Hurvin’s work seems to me to incorporate an intense amount of depth. Depth of field, depth of colour, and even depth of subject” (Thelma Golden in conversation with Vicky Lowry, “Hurvin Anderson,” Elle Decor, April, 2011, p. 88). The effect of this is disorienting and unsettling – there is subtle discord beneath the surface and the viewer cannot fully make out the subject of the picture.
“Once you paint an image, it starts to become something else.”
Born in England to parents of Jamaican descent, Anderson uses the complex mental landscapes of works such as Lower Lake III to explore his own personal relationship with his Jamaican heritage. From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s the so-called ‘Windrush’ generation of Caribbean migrants arrived and set up home in Britain. The Britain they arrived in, however, was not necessarily welcoming – a reception that Anderson’s parents would, to some degree, have encountered when they moved to Birmingham from Jamaica. Exiled from white churches, bars, pubs and other common social spaces, migrants established their own makeshift leisure spaces. Not only were these spaces where one could briefly escape the bustle of the city, but they were places of entertainment, settings where communities could come together and socialise.In the same vein as in the pivotal Peter’s Series, which formed the basis of the artist’s two major solo museum shows at Tate Britain (Art Now: Hurvin Anderson Peter’s Series 2007-2009, 2009) and in New York at The Studio Museum in Harlem (Hurvin Anderson: Peter’s Series 2007-2009, 2009), Anderson meditatively conjoins pluriform histories to create an utterly contemporary document of cross-culturalism. As the artist expands on this breakthrough group depicting makeshift barbershops in the attic of Caribbean immigrant’s homes , “it is not only a personal space loaded with imagery, but it also bears the stamp of political, economic and social history” (Hurvin Anderson in conversation with Thelma Golden in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Britain, Art Now: Hurvin Anderson Peter’s Series 2007-2009, 2009, n.p.).As such, the present work at once ingeniously captures the disorientated and displaced cultural landscape of Caribbean immigrants via the visual politics of leisure spaces. While historically known as a site of racial conflict, the district of Handsworth is painted with a split sense of tenderness and detachment. As Jonathan Watkins notes, “instead of riots and violence we see quiet, relatively empty locations. These are the streets, parks and other public (in-between) places where the artist as a young man walked and met with friends, played football or simply hung around. They haunt him, like the sun, sea and palm trees of the Caribbean, and he returns to them through an artistic practice that is knowingly nostalgic” (Jonathan Watkins, “Foreword”, in Hurvin Anderson: reporting back, Exh. Eat., Birmingham, Ikon Gallery, 2013, p. 9).
Engaging strongly with the tradition of landscape painting, Anderson’s atmospheric environment recalls the art historical lineage of Impressionism – the great bastion of idyllic leisure pursuits in paint – and yet conflate it with a profoundly post-colonial dialogue. Echoing masterpieces such as Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières or Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe - which speak to a very specific late nineteenth-century bourgeois sense of leisure, Anderson masterfully subverts this legacy for his own highly-charged purposes. In reworking the language of Impressionist masters, Anderson calls into question the totalising conception of European leisure during a time when the day-to-day of migrants in the United Kingdom was still heavily dominated by colonial rule. This dark, unsettling undercurrent lies in the shadowy layers of semi-realised landscape silhouettes. However, as Jennifer Higgie noted, “despite the allusions in the paintings to the complex histories of leisure, politics and control […] meaning is open-ended and allusive rather than emphatic” (Jennifer Higgie, “Another word for feeling,” in: Exh. Cat., Birmingham, Ikon Gallery, op. cit., p. 11). Avoiding didacticism whilst retaining the conceptual tenets that underpin all of the artist’s best work, Lower Lake III epitomises the thoughtful practice that earned the artist a Turner prize nomination in 2017 and has brought him to international acclaim. As past, present and future merge into one, Anderson creates a pervasive, split sense of displacement and belonging, focusing both on the visible and the absent, while immortalising the disorienting feeling he encountered during his youth. More memoryscape than landscape, Lower Lake III is a pictorial reckoning on identity in flux, a testament to Anderson’s painterly dexterity and thoughtful practice, in short, a work that invariably confirms Anderson’s status as one of the most celebrated British painters of his generation.