Monday, April 28, 2008

What exactly is quality in a Trinidadian context? Part 1

Jason Nedd's painting of Tobago and representational of its culture, Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies

Whenever I write, I usually find that somewhere in the text lies the next possible article that causes me to go away and think about an angle to another question. Yesterday it was the idea of quality and what would these standards look like in Trinidad and Tobago. I have been asked on several occasions what constitutes good Art? This question is asked with great sincerity, by most. People really would like to feel that they have a good eye for it. So much so that they are willing to buy poor replicas of works by Van Gogn and Da Vinci or more recent local works like David Moore and Anthony Timothy.

I remember when Mr. Moore was making prints of his Rockwellesque pastiches of disappearing life on the islands. Even then, friends and acquaintances would engage me in heated discussions about Art. The question then was whether he was cheapening both Art and himself by creating such work. Today his work stands as very representative of a period. In some ways, it is a sad testimony of a time, because as far as I can summarize, he no longer works in Trinidad or produces work for Trinidad and Tobago. This is from talking to people who know him, but I will still leave that up to speculation and keep this open. He may return at this writing and flood the market place again.

David Moore painting from 1992, ( Arima, Trinidad West Indies)

What is clear with the work of Mr. Moore is that he grappled with something that artists are still dealing with in Trinidad and Tobago, and that is, how to represent what interests him about the country in a way that is visually appealing and lasting. My continued concern is in the repetition of these themes. Unlike other places in the world, of the hundreds of artists who make work on the islands, many of them do so in very similar ways, creating similar works.

There is always a market for a painting of a gingerbread house, a pastoral scene, a washer woman walking along a pristine trail to a small thatched house in the distance. Today these images are hard to reconcile when signage stating, stop the smelter factory along dirt roads laden with poles that are jumbled with wires suited for cell phones and Internet access, and that same little house has no place in a world that demands that such a life is one of poverty that can only be perceived as quaint on canvas. When I speak of quality or value, what I am talking about is an understanding of art production in Trinidad and Tobago for itself. A clear assessment of what is made and why.

So if one can say that we have five hundred landscape painters, four hundred and sixty eight wood sculptors, then we can begin to ask questions like, what engages the wood sculptor as opposed to the metalsmith or the person doing pottery? How much of the work is for high production and how much is made for on special consignment.

But also, once the number of people practicing is known, and this can be done by checking sites like the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago, what has to be known, is, if a number of artists are all painting birds, who of the bird painters are considered the most skilled and why? Is it the photorealism? Is it the composition? The technique? At one point in art in Trinidad and Tobago, this was easy to state. People spoke about an artist’s ability to paint something in such a way that it made you feel that the thing was a photograph. But with the huge advances in photography and the inevitable change in tastes, that ability to create photorealism eventually fell away as the thing to look at. It helped for a moment to distinguish a certain group. The yearly show of artists best work at the National Museum did much for Art, but again, eventually it went the way of the wind.

Today, good art is relative to the press that work gets in the papers. If you want to know who is good or very good, apart from the luminaries who are constantly in the media, the playing field falls away quickly Is it wise to rate artists anyway? I do not believe that what I am suggesting is a rating, but a greater awareness of what is made in Trinidad and Tobago and why? Who do Artists like themselves? Do these artists support each others’ works? If so, how does this support encourage high standards of work in the future?

There is Studio 66 run by Makemba Kunle and Women in Art run by Frauline Rudder. How much these two examples manage to set standards is unknown. One can also ask the question, how does the work of artists in Trinidad and Tobago impact on or even influence work in the other islands or the other islands on us, if at all?

Francisco Cabral's chair, Trinidad, West Indies

Ever so often a small group appear on the horizon and tries to set themselves apart with a type of work. Yet very little is written about this, or followed up. Finding out about one such luminary like Francisco Cabral will lead you to a basic dead end. He’s possibly in Miami. He’s left Trinidad for good. He sparked and now he’s gone.

Of those who stay and keep their names prominent, Jackie Hinckson, LeRoi Clarke, Peter Minshall and Wendy Nanan, to name a few, they are more focused on producing their work, as they should. What you do see, is that the frame shops that are now also doubling as galleries, all artists are subject to spending a great deal on framing their work for show, and that represents a certain value and standard. It can even be argued that the frame influences the sale of the work. - Adele

Below: A television soft drink ad showing a fairly accurate interpretation of art work at a gallery opening in Trinidad and Tobago.

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