Review: A new breeze blows on the ground floor of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands

By Emérentienne Paschalides Sunday, April 30th, 2017 Categories: Exhibitions, Features, Reviews, Updates

Emérentienne Paschalides shares a review of the exhibition ‘Upon the Seas’, which runs at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands (NGCI) between January 20 – May 31, 2017. Curated by the NGCI’s Director and Chief Curator Natalie Urquhart, this show investigates the strong ties between maritime culture and the Cayman Islands through a variety of diverse works, which both allude to the islands’ history and express contemporary reflections on society. Read more below:

Exhibition View – Upon the Seas curated by Natalie Urquhart.

Exhibition View – Upon the Seas curated by Natalie Urquhart.

Have we really permanently damaged our planet? Geologists have now joined the environmentalists’ chorus and are singing that Earth has been irremediably thrown into a new time period that they call the ‘Anthropocene’ – anthropo for ‘man’ and cene for ‘new’. In the 4.6 billion of years of Earth’s history, we humans are just an insignificant blip, our 200,000 years representing less than .01% of it. And yet our activity has had an unmistakable, and perhaps irreversible, impact on our planet.

National Gallery of the Cayman Islands (NGCI) Chief Curator Natalie Urquhart has gathered twenty artists around the theme of the maritime environment, which is from now on working on all the spheres of intellectual studies, from economy to philosophy. Urquhart asked each of them: now that the Anthropocene period has begun, how can an artwork represent and make us reflect on our new geological age?

Their responses are displayed in a surprisingly refreshing exhibition, which shows each artist’s journey from exploration to revelation. Some displays are very matter-of-fact but lyrical, like the stylised images of Shane, who is digitally resuscitating Caymanian cargoes from the 19th century. Others are plainly factual, such as oral historical extracts from the Cayman National Archive or the web-based Pterois Volitans’ photo montage on the practice of lion-fish culling. But overall, the exhibition is an unexpected and pleasant surprise of young critically engaging artworks.

Don’t be fooled then by the title of the exhibition Upon the Seas and its seemingly old and tired theme: the curator has managed to reinvigorate it with gusto and freshness. For a start, you will see none of those stark artworks that abound in the aftermath of 2004 Hurricane Ivan, usually spiral compositions that twisted images like corkscrews and gave us vertigo. Instead you will see contemporary and stylish works that feel new, inventive and peacefully reflective.

Kaitlyn Elphinstone – Crystal Beach Rock (2016), Digital installation with mixed media, Swarovski crystals, pearls, beads, and beach rock.

Kaitlyn Elphinstone – Crystal Beach Rock (2016), Digital installation with mixed media, Swarovski crystals, pearls, beads, and beach rock.

Take for example the ecological approach of Kaitlyn Elphinstone, whose drift seeds wrapped in fishing lines resemble larvae in their silk cocoons, which have first been gilded like ornamental objects of great prestige. She also painstakingly encrusts beach rocks with hundreds of gems – a wink to Damien Hirst’s diamond skull – and points the finger at our insatiable appetite for bling (or perhaps even the art market becoming drunk with money), which surely is behind the environmental changes that brought on the Anthropocene.

David Ebanks - Waterline: Eastern & Western Passages (2003), Blown, hot-worked, metalised glass, wood, steel.

Davin Ebanks – Waterline: Eastern & Western Passages (2003), Blown, hot-worked, metalised glass, wood, steel.

Davin Ebanks’ graceful installation of floating pirogues is another case in point, with their consignment of delicate flowers and glassy spikes stuck to canon balls, which sit like unexploded seeds – metaphors for destruction and rebirth. Salvation is also the focus of John Broad, whose haunting painting of The Ark, re-imagined from a derelict boat of Cuban refugees, is a very topical subject at the moment and somehow encapsulates both despair and hope.

The sculptural piece by David Bridgeman is another tour-de-force in conceptual simplicity. Two steel pieces salvaged from a wreck are hanging on a heavy chain from the ceiling, like a gentle pendulum clock frozen in time but waiting to be restarted. The two intriguing suspensions apparently come from the warning communication system of a defunct canal dredger, but they look more like giant lemon juicers ready to crush and slice through the earth. The duality of placidity/threat and silence/warning is reinforced by the open interpretation of biomorphic shapes covering the ominous objects, which could be imagined as body parts, skulls, question marks or simple decorations.

Brandon Saunders – Osiris (2016), digital photograph.

Brandon Saunders – Osiris (2016), digital photograph.

Yonier Powery - Low Tide (2015), mixed media on canvas.

Yonier Powery – Low Tide (2015), mixed media on canvas.

Artworks with such mixed character are prevalent throughout the Gallery hall, perhaps because they point to our own mixed response to environmental disasters. For example, a mixture of disbelief and astonishment are provoked by the hybrid creations of artists like Brandon Saunders, with his imagined unusual portraits of crustacean or coral-headed humans, and Yonier Powery, whose paintings of fantastical landscapes and sea creatures plunge us back into the realm of Jules Verne’s sea monsters, fairy tales and mythology. These artworks seem to illustrate Caymanian legends either unheard of or waiting to be written. In the process they depict, like all legends, man’s attempt to control Nature and to acquire its spiritual attributes.

Simon Tatum - Discover and Rediscover (2016), installation view.

Simon Tatum – Discover and Rediscover (2016), installation view.

A spiritual, mystical atmosphere in fact pervades the whole exhibition. Its ultimate expression is in the soothing slow-motion video by Jamie Hahn (which she calls an ‘electronic meditation’), the large hypnotic abstraction by Al Ebanks and Simon Tatum’s series of ghostly prints mysteriously folded and ceremoniously lined up to offer a deconstruction and reconstruction of the famous 1938 Cayman images taken by the photographer Bernard Lewis.

No doubt the exhibition’s success is also due to the wise curatorial decision to keep its voice fittingly discreet and non-didactic and to make a neat arrangement of displays, perfectly fitted to the modern gallery space.  The whole ensemble makes a novel exhibition to see, from which you will emerge pensive but serene. It will be up to you to decide whether this tranquility expresses the calm before or after the storm.

Emérentienne Paschalides
Emérentienne Paschalides

As Art Consultant for private clients and institutions, Emé has directed a portfolio of art commissions, collections and curatorial initiatives. Prior to this she was Education Manager for the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, working on cultural regeneration projects and overseeing an extensive programme of courses. She was instrumental in setting up the new Education Department and the Lunch Lecture series, for which she still lectures regularly. She has also written numerous critiques and reviews for publications and has acted as judge in various art competitions. Based in Paris until 1992, Emé was previously Gallery assistant to G.P. Vallois. Emé is currently a member of the Exhibition Committee and the Education Committee at the NGCI.