Friday, November 23, 2007

Roberta Stoddart - The dark sides of society

The artist Roberta Stoddart is clearly a very strong painter. Her palette for her show as well as the scale of her work recalls the fine portraiture of British Artist, Lucien Freud in its classical sensibilities. She seems to deliberately choose a stark grouping of colour to drive home her messages and keep her focus very sharp.

I find this show very disturbing. The artist looks at beauty within the fringes of society. Yet there is a very harsh aftertaste, and this must be discussed because it is a very tantalizing, confusing and relevant underpinning. She is asking the question, why do we feel uncomfortable and by doing so, she places heads onto insects commonly referred to as vermin, in several small paintings that encourage coming closer to look at the details. Without doubt there is a searching to understand how she relates to the dark sides of society.

A gay friend of mine has spoken with me about feelings of being on the fringes recently. Despite the strides made in his society of Toronto, he has still felt the inability to be what he wants to be and this has left scars on his psyche. He asks the question, why does he have to be mindful of not putting his life out there because he does not want to upset the majority?

In Ms. Stoddart’s work, this is also apparent, but moreso, by her use of ‘black’ people as her
predominant choice here, she does bring to question the idea of the black place in society. The very real, tenuous reality of “these people” as problems. Very much like the challenged adult in society. Someone whom you may acknowledge, but be at pains to associate with. Unless you have to. This may be impolitic to say, but it is the truth of many circumstances where people have difficulty with differences of any kind, difficulties that show up deficiencies in themselves to be tolerant for any length of time.

Is she saying that she feels as alienated as people of colour who are caught between races? What of the insect paintings? Is she looking at this group as many believe them to be? There is a clear wrestling with prejudice. I can skirt the fact that she is a Jamaican, Caucasian artist and say that this has nothing to do with her painting choices. But this would be disingenuous, because hers is a long, difficult struggle of privilege in a predominantly black society. There is no way to discuss this artists works and not feel the growing pangs and delicate balance that is race, class and colour in the islands.

Miss Stoddart also includes an older painting of children and a self portrait in a wedding gown. I have written about the former painting before, but the latter, being a new work and chosen for this show, is a bold statement about marriage. Although she may be dressed in wedding finery, her pose is stiff and doll like. Marriage is certainly more than the day in question. Is she perhaps saying that marriage is not all that it is cracked up to be?

People naturally gravitate towards her work because of the excellent technical skills, but how many really want to look at the gut wrenching questions she employs? I suspect not many, as I have found in the writing I have come across on her works, and I believe that we are poorer for not engaging the questions that Miss Stoddart is trying to articulate through her work.

An exhibition of recent works, In the Flesh - Roberta Stoddart. National Museum of Trinidad and Tobago, Trinidad, West Indies. 22th November till 8th December, 2007.

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