Before looking at these paintings, try listening to “Anywhere but Nowhere,” the 1973 reggae hit that inspired the title of the exhibition. The lyrics are about teenage romance, but with K.C. White’s sweet vocal and the steady beat of reggae, it could also suggest a bittersweet resignation to the alienation of displacement—as might apply to a diaspora like Caribbeans living in London. Steve McQueen dramatized their experience in his BBC-Amazon series, “Small Axe.” Hurvin Anderson shares it in his paintings.
Or does he? Despite his family’s Jamaican background and the alienation suggested by the title, his paintings show that he relates well to the place he has chosen to live: the world of modern painting. As he puts it: “It’s only in painting that you can do everything you want.” Anderson is endlessly fascinated by the tension between depth and surface, setting grids and rectangles against splashes, drips and areas of color. He establishes a strong emotive presence in the lush foliage and simple buildings of a residential Jamaican neighborhood. The views feel too much like modern painting to be escapist calendar art, but they make even me nostalgic for a Caribbean setting, and I’ve only been there once.
Exhibition text suggests that the artist wished to counteract these touristic effects with something political in the largest and most recent piece in the exhibition: the thirty-foot-long “No One Remembers.” It transforms a gallery wall into the small buildings and fences that line a Jamaican street. A flag pattern overwhelms a building in the center, while at the far right a billboard broadcasts the title of the piece. It’s accompanied by portrait heads of the eight activists whom no one remembers. But is the painting itself actually political? The flag, the cause and the obliterated faces of the activists are all unidentifiable. Instead, the painting offers the kind of authentic local color that a tourist might enjoy. And what’s wrong with appealing to tourists, anyway? They enjoy themselves, they spend money, they harm no one (one hopes). Just like art lovers.
The exhibition also includes a large piece from the artist’s “Barbershop” series from 2008. Again, the jazzy manipulation of pictorial space with lines and colored rectangles makes the piece dance with energy. The ambience is just as exciting and Afrocentric as Kerry Marshall’s “School of Beauty,” yet it does so without a single human figure. It affirms the importance of a community as well as the importance of modern abstract painting.
Modern landscape painting, as introduced by Cezanne and Van Gogh, puts a chosen locale inside the viewer, rather than the other way around. Anderson’s paintings also deliver a pleasant exhaustion. No matter where you look, effort has been made to balance left-to-right, top-to-bottom: the inevitable issues of landscape or cityscape subject matter. Ultimately each painting surrenders into a gentle, downward flow, with foliage bending a branch, water dripping down a wall or just a downward pull of design. Hurvin Anderson’s anywhere/nowhere is a good place to be. (Chris Miller)
“Hurvin Anderson: Anywhere but Nowhere” at The Arts Club of Chicago, 201 East Ontario, through August 7.