Figuring the Human

By Marsha Pearce Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 Categories: Exhibitions, Reviews, Updates
 

Marsha Pearce reviews the recent exhibition ‘Interpretations of the Human Figure’ held by the Visual Arts Unit of the Department of Creative and Festival Arts, University of the West Indies St Augustine Campus, Trinidad. The display of over sixty pieces of art ran from December 17-18, 2013 at the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago, and was curated by Daniella Carrington, Elsa Carrington-Clarke, Ken Crichlow and Lesley-Ann Noel.

An Apple a Day, acrylic on canvas, by Alex Kelly. All photographs by Marsha Pearce.

An Apple a Day, acrylic on canvas, by Alex Kelly. All photographs by Marsha Pearce.

Studies of the human figure are often a key part of the trajectory of a visual artist’s education. In his memoir of becoming an artist, Donald “Jackie” Hinkson documents his time spent at the Académie Julian in France: “Each student sat at a little table on which a small easel rested. We worked long and hard. In the morning we painted for about three hours. In the afternoon, we drew for almost four hours. We assembled after lunch, and then a model entered the room. He or she disrobed. We spent the long hours sketching him or her. Almost always, our task involved some sort of engagement with the human form” (p. 213).

The practice of getting acquainted with the human form through art – a practice that on the surface elucidates that form in terms of line, shape and the distribution of flesh and bones in space – is a direct way of addressing the human condition and embodying self-knowledge. According to Professor of Art, Deborah Rockman: “Looking at a human form in any context has the potential to provide us with the experience of looking in the mirror” (p. 91). How do we see ourselves in today’s contexts? How do we make sense of our bodies in personal and collective sociocultural ways? How do we give mental shape to, fathom and “figure” the human figure? The Visual Arts Unit of the Department of Creative and Festival Arts, University of the West Indies St Augustine Campus seemed to pose such questions in its recent exhibition of student and staff works (past and present students and employees) curated under the theme: Interpretations of the Human Figure. The display of over sixty pieces of art ran from December 17-18, 2013 at the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago.

Body Study 2, oil on cut board, by Che Lovelace.

Body Study 2, oil on cut board, by Che Lovelace.

I am Beautiful, digital print, by Rajendra Ramkallawan.

I am Beautiful, digital print, by Rajendra Ramkallawan.

Two-dimensional pieces by such students as Kimoi Hamid, Lauren Jennings-Stoute, Jason Hendrickson, Ian Thompson and Kamilah Jackson showed attention to proportion, perspective, contours, weight and balance as they rendered the body in repose or in a reclining posture. Aisha Provoteaux Webster’s sculpture, in the round, compelled viewers – who in some instances stood shoulder-to-shoulder and eye-to-eye with the work – to confront the body’s bold presence and occupation of place and time: not only the place in which her art stood but also the moment in which it was situated. Darron Small’s pen and ink piece entitled Yemaya and Vibert Medford’s photograph titled Nude in the Morning Light were strong visual expositions of the human form in the syntax of the play of shadow and illumination.

Many of the works were representational life drawings – technical executions of observations of a live model ­– a fact that gave an air of predictability and diminished to some extent the potentiality of a show that called for, by way of its title, a plurality of translations of and experimentations with the human form. And yet, there were significant components of the exhibition that demonstrated astute, penetrating and some varied examinations of the human figure. Among such works was Alex Kelly’s An Apple a Day. Kelly gave a provocative slant to the maxim: an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Through acrylic on canvas he presented an unsettling emaciated figure holding the Apple logo in his hand. The figure in the painting seems to have taken a bite of the fruit in a powerful image that makes a link between us, and the media products we consume. The apple becomes a metaphor for Kelly in a message that suggests that an apple a day – or our daily ingestion of media – will be our demise. Kelly reinforced his idea with his inclusion of what appeared to be earphones or a cable plugged into the head in a manner that pushed the notion of consumption beyond what we swallow with our buccal cavity to what we allow into our minds.

From left to right: Full of Grace by Wasia Ward, Yemaya by Darron Small and Untitled Sculpture by Aisha Provoteaux Webster.

From left to right: Full of Grace by Wasia Ward, Yemaya by Darron Small and Untitled Sculpture by Aisha Provoteaux Webster.

My Ancestors, I Saw Nobody and Nobody by Camille Harding.

My Ancestors, I Saw Nobody and Nobody by Camille Harding.

From left to right: Untitled 1 by Sarah Knights and Drawings by Sebastian De Lancey.

From left to right: Untitled 1 by Sarah Knights and Drawings by Sebastian De Lancey.

In Full of Grace, Wasia Ward, broke up the body into myriad facets pointing us in the direction of its many-sidedness and forcing us to see that the body can be considered in more than one way, from various aspects. Interestingly, in highlighting the multidimensionality of the body Ward foregrounded its connection to the sacred by featuring the head with an aureole. She moved the body from a physical dimension to that of a spiritual framework.

Lecturer Che Lovelace underscored the connectedness of moments, linking then and now with his vibrating figure that appeared to be in perpetual motion. Student Rajendra Ramkallawan addressed issues of stereotyping and the judgment of outer appearances in his piece, which asserted the beauty and validity of a tattooed body. Sebastian De Lancey took us out of the realm of the familiar with distorted forms that tested the boundaries of humanity. If De Lancey expanded our gaze, Michael Lee Poy invited us to have an intimate, almost voyeuristic engagement. Lee Poy stitched together layers of dryer lint, fabric softener sheets and mint wrappers and he cut openings in them, which led to a number of obscured views of parts of the body. The various strata of materials seemed to imply layers of skin beneath which we should look ­– a flesh that we must eventually discard like the lint, sheets and wrappers – to discover and discern perhaps what is more enduring within.

Figures by Christine Browne, Genieve Ramrattan and Kevin Vincent.

Figures by Christine Browne, Genieve Ramrattan and Kevin Vincent.

Camille Harding drew inspiration from George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile, focusing specifically on Lamming’s reference to Shakespeare’s Prospero. Lamming writes: “Now we know – although we cannot locate – the seeds of Prospero’s eternal confidence. The slave whose skin suggests the savaged deformity of his nature becomes identical with the Carib Indian who feeds on human flesh. Carib Indian and African slave, both seen as wild fruits of Nature, share equally that spirit of revolt which Prospero by sword or Language is determined to conquer” (p. 13). In her piece My Ancestors, Harding seemed to present the Carib Indian and African slave as identical to each other with their twin poses and, in her works entitled I Saw Nobody and Nobody, she explored ideas of nullification and a cancelling out of existence – of conquest and eradication. This theme of erasure was echoed by Sarah Knights, whose painting of a figure with an obliterated face raised matters of identity and being.

The photographic images by Christine Browne, Genieve Ramrattan and Kevin Vincent pivoted on the figures we can make with our hands. Fingers were bent and palms were oriented in ways that interpreted the word “figure” as configuration, shape, design or motif. The artists zoomed in on an expressive part of our bodies to expose us to the ways in which the human form itself participates in symbol making and communication. Similarly, Kervina Persad’s digital illustration titled Basorexia, offered us a look at a pattern of touch. Persad manipulated positive and negative spaces effectively to depict shapes of yearning.

Zero Sum, interactive installation, by Roger McCollin.

Zero Sum, interactive installation, by Roger McCollin.

From left to right: Basorexia by Kervina Persad, Nude 1 by Sabrina Sinanan and Sleep Series by Kamilah Jackson.

From left to right: Basorexia by Kervina Persad, Nude 1 by Sabrina Sinanan and Sleep Series by Kamilah Jackson.

With Zero Sum, Roger McCollin, a lecturer, offered viewers a memorable interactive experience. McCollin used various popular women’s magazines: Allure, Cosmopolitan, Self, Oxygen and Lucky, as keys which when pressed, altered the silhouette of an image on a screen. Viewers could for example increase the size of the breasts on screen or reduce the waist. His piece was a potent commentary on body image and dominant ideologies of corporeal perfection. Along with transforming the image, the magazines allowed visitors to play the five notes of the major pentatonic scale, a pervasive musical scale used around the world. With this sound element, McCollin stirred us to consider the body in relation to a normative tune. His piece also kept up a persistent hum that permeated the exhibition space in a way that called to mind a steady continuous rumble that we know too well; the many voices that we carry with us daily – voices that declare we are too fat, too thin, not good enough.

This show of works illustrated the technical and conceptual aptitude of those studying and teaching at the Visual Arts Unit. It also gave us enough robust visual prompts to have us looking at ourselves and attempting to figure out who we are and want to be. Interpretations of the Human Figure was curated by Daniella Carrington, Elsa Carrington-Clarke, Ken Crichlow and Lesley-Ann Noel.

 

References

Hinkson, Jackie. What Things Are True: A Memoir of Becoming an Artist. Cascade: Paria Publishing Company Limited, 2012. Print.

Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Print.

Rockman, Deborah. The Art of Teaching Art: A Guide for Teaching and Learning the Foundations of Drawing-Based Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Marsha Pearce
Marsha Pearce

Marsha Pearce is ARC’s Senior Arts Writer and Editor. She holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus, Trinidad. She lectures in the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI and is also a freelance arts writer for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper. Pearce is the 2006 Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Cultural Studies Fellow.