Contemporary Art

Hurvin Anderson – from Trinidad to the Turner Prize

By Ben Gentilli

P ainted a year after Hurvin Anderson returned to London from Trinidad following a residency programme on the island, Untitled (Beach Scene) is a mature early work that vibrantly reflects the energetic creativity that his experience of Trinidad imparted on him. It will be offered for sale in the Contemporary Art Evening Auction in London on 5 October. 


This painting from 2003 is a work of sophisticated paradoxes: it is a personal memory composed from found photographs, a local scene painted by an outsider, and a post-colonial narrative rendered in sumptuous colour and diaphanous washes. As political as it is lyrical, Untitled (Beach Scene) examines ideas concerning Afro-Caribbean heritage, identity, and migration.

It is these outstandingly complex nuances to his paintings that have brought him to the attention of the Turner Prize judges this year. Shortlisted for the 2017 Turner Prize alongside three other artists including Lubaina Himid, Anderson joins a list of artists over the last three decades that reads like a roll call of contemporary British painting. Howard Hodgkin, Richard Long, Gilbert & George, Rachel Whiteread, Peter Doig, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Yinka Shonibare have all won or been nominated for the prize, placing Anderson at the vanguard of British painting. As with all the previous nominees and winners, Anderson’s work specifically reflects the climate of our time – particularly surrounding our post-Brexit climate. Of this, the judges noted Anderson as "an outstanding British painter whose art speaks to our current political moment with questions about identity and belonging". (Mark Brown, Older artists on Turner prize, The Guardian, 3 May 2017).

TORONTO, ON - May 18: British-Jamaican painter Hurvin Anderson, whose big canvases fill the 4th floor at the AGO in Toronto, Ontario. (Todd Korol/Toronto Star via Getty Images) Todd Korol/Toronto Star via Getty Images


As highly important threads that run through Anderson's work, these themes are explored through the visual politics of leisure spaces. Ranging from barber shops to bars and beaches, the environments painted in the early works boldly recall 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. The Parisian River Seine is here reimagined as the exotic island coastline pictured in Untitled (Beach Scene). Echoing masterpieces such as Seurat's Bathers at Asnières or Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe – which speaks to a very specific late-nineteenth-century bourgeois sense of leisure, Anderson masterfully subverts this legacy for his own highly-charged purposes. Trinidad's long colonial history under British rule speaks directly to Anderson's split heritage as a man born in Birmingham to Jamaican parents. In reworking the language of Impressionist masters, Anderson calls into question the totalising conception of European leisure during a time when Trinidad was still heavily dominated by colonial rule. This dark, unsettling undercurrent lies in the shadowy layers of semi-realised figures. As past and present, even perhaps the future, merges into one, Anderson masterfully evokes the distressing histories of the island as forms and time periods migrate across the canvas.

XOS1109248 Bathers at Asnières, 1884 (oil on canvas) by Seurat, Georges Pierre (1859-91); 201x300 cm; National Gallery, London, UK; French, out of copyright


"Whilst I was in Trinidad, there was this moment where you felt part of it, not part of it. I was this interloper, coming through the veldt, a bit of a spy, but I was found out" (Hurvin Anderson in Alice Spawls, It's only in painting that you can do everything you want, Apollo, 17 September 2016). There is a perennial sense of distance or detachment in Anderson's work that shines through in Untitled (Beach Scene). As the foreground falls away in an almost melancholic cascade of drips, Anderson places the scene tantalising out of the viewer's grasp. We are not there and will never be. This compositional void between viewer and subject only serves to enhance a sense of distance and past, reinforced by Anderson’s use of source imagery. Working from photographs, Anderson conjures a sense of memory through the documents of memory itself; his paintings are thus second-hand interpretations of a first-hand experience.


It is a working method that recalls the close bond Anderson forged with his teacher, Peter Doig, at the Royal College of Art. While Anderson's work is more politically charged, the links between his and Doig's artistic trajectory are exceptional. Both dealing with romantic notions of memory and the outsider, Anderson and Doig both spent time in Trinidad, and the present work is rendered with a light translucency that recalls Doig's work from the same period. However, the magical realism of Doig's exotic landscapes is here replaced with a more radical edge – where Doig finds escapism, Anderson finds colonialism.

This politicism of the landscape genre is testament to an artist who can masterfully pull from art history as much as he pushes the boundaries of contemporary painting. More memoryscape than landscape, Untitled (Beach Scene) is a pictorial reckoning on identity in flux; this painting speaks of an artist grappling with a heritage that stretches from Britain to Jamaica, and an identity, that for a time, took root in Trinidad.



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