The smallest BNG Biennial, but it’s consistently good

  • 'Untitled' by Kevin Morris exhibits the influence of Byzantine art.

    'Untitled' by Kevin Morris exhibits the influence of Byzantine art.

  • 'Air' by Jamie Macmillan and Rohan Shastri. The artists collaborated to present four 'funky' photographs depicting the classical elements earth, air, water and fire, in thsi year's BNG Biennial.

    'Air' by Jamie Macmillan and Rohan Shastri. The artists collaborated to present four 'funky' photographs depicting the classical elements earth, air, water and fire, in thsi year's BNG Biennial.

  • 'Water' by Jamie Macmillan and Rohan Shastri. The artists collaborated to present four 'funky' photographs depicting the classical elements earth, air, water and fire, in thsi year's BNG Biennial.

    'Water' by Jamie Macmillan and Rohan Shastri. The artists collaborated to present four 'funky' photographs depicting the classical elements earth, air, water and fire, in thsi year's BNG Biennial.

  • 'Waiting For Something 2' by Edwin Smith questions whether his fellow Bermudians are at odds with the modern world as stated by the United Nations.

    'Waiting For Something 2' by Edwin Smith questions whether his fellow Bermudians are at odds with the modern world as stated by the United Nations.

The 2012 BNG Biennial is a difficult exhibition. Indeed, on opening night, I overheard varying expressions of incomprehension.

Despite that, I also think it the most consistently good biennial the BNG has ever hosted. In all or most previous biennials, there were one or more entries, that I thought did not meet the standard the biennial should uphold, but that is not the case with this year’s exhibition. At the same time, I also know that this year’s Biennial is, by far and away, the smallest biennial ever, in terms of the number of pieces accepted.

I cannot consider what was eliminated, as I am not privy to what was rejected, but it is conceivable that some pieces that were excluded, might have been of an acceptable standard. The selection criteria used by the jury remains very unclear and contentious. Considering what is currently on the BNG walls, however, my saying that the Biennial is difficult, is not a criticism. It is more a statement of fact. This challenging exhibition requires time, patience, much thought and study, with a mind open to new possibilities.

When viewing works of art, especially those of the modernist, abstract kind, many ponder their meanings and often declare, “I don’t get it.” I find it helpful to approach such works from a different perspective. I often find it useful to suspend questions of meaning, in favour of allowing the work to speak on a more formal basis, to allow the work to be, without it having to have a discernible meaning. Most of us when looking at a flower, for example, enjoy it without having to be informed about its underlying biological purpose. We can do something similar with art and see it aesthetically, without having to know what the artist intended or meant.

We can also bring to the work our own interpretation and that too, is a valid way of viewing art. In doing so, however, we must realise that this is a personal interpretation that may be different from the way others see it. One of the pleasures I get from walking an exhibit with others, is seeing works of art from different viewpoints. Seeing a work from their perspective, often expands my own vision of whatever it is, we are looking at.

A number of exhibits in the Biennial are more conceptual in nature and by that I mean the emphasis is on an idea. This approach to the making of art, places it in a different category; one that requires some understanding of the artist’s intentions and hopefully it is not so deeply buried in the work, that it becomes cryptic. Indeed, with the most extreme examples, the art object is eliminated altogether and replaced with a written statement only. The several works in this year’s Biennial that tend in this direction, provides, at least, some kind of visual object for the viewing public to see and hopefully grasp.

Having said that this year’s BNG Biennial exhibition is a consistently good one. Running concurrently with the Biennial is another delightful exhibition in the Ondaatje Wing, the David White L Collection, which features impressionist views of Bermuda, primarily by American impressionist painters from the early 20th century. This show provides the visitor with an alternative choice which has been strongly welcomed.

It has been said that the BNG Biennial is exclusively about modern, abstract art, but that has never been the case and this year’s show is no exception. Jacqueline Alma’s, realistic, full-length portrait is particularly notable, as are Vaughan Evans’ three woodcuts on paper of potato fields.

One of the more demanding conceptual works is one by Charlie Godet Thomas. It consists of an open, wooden, box-like structure, painted black, along with a photograph that is so subtle, some actually thought it a blank card and thus completely missed the point, however, the photo is actually that of a skull. When linked with the work’s title “Making Sense (A Grave Dimension),” it becomes apparent that this work is about death, the box being the dimensions of a grave.

Antoine Hunt’s “Deconstructed Forest” confronts the viewer with a fallen Bermuda Cedar. That, in itself is clearly provocative in that it is, as I understand it, unlawful to cut down or destroy a Bermuda Cedar, but this one was felled by the Department of Parks, because it was thought to be unstable. In this case, Mr Hunt, after it was taken down, carefully cut the tree into sections and then, after reconstructing it in the gallery, hung it from a beam up in the roof, but at the same time, suspended the remaining roots above the floor by some inches. By highlighting the Bermuda Cedar and calling it “Deconstructed Forest,” Hunt is drawing attention to the destruction of the natural environment. Considering that this particular cedar on exhibit, may have been unlawfully destroyed, it becomes a symbol of this wider destruction.

“Following Nothing,” the title of one of Michael Walsh’s contribution to the Biennial, is of a boat-like structure made of sections of plywood, cut in such a way, that the interior of the boat resembles a contour map. The pieces that were cut out of the boat were then reassembled and placed across the gallery, leaning against a corner. Walsh, in putting that part together, burned it black and then hammered in numerous old Bermuda railroad spikes and called the work, “We Did Nothing.” Walsh, in his Biennial statement, suggests that certain artists have liberated his perceptions and opened his vision to true experiences and among these is Toshikatsu Endo, a Japanese artist, who, like Walsh, has created a boat-like structure, that he likewise charred.

Manuel Palacio has once again sought to shock but because it is his modus operandi, we have come to expect it and because of this expectation, we are becoming shockproof to his need to be shocking. In this Biennial he has used the N word, which is in bold relief, followed by a sentence in low relief, which is as follows: “White People know that the mere utterance of that word, even in condemnation, is an indictment of racism. And short of terrorism, shame is the best instrument of repression.” The title of the work is; “Mouthpiece for White People II.”

Over the years that I have observed Palacio’s art, besides being provocative, it is stylistically all over the map and this year’s Biennial contribution is no exception. It seems possible that this current Biennial piece is influenced by the New York artist, Glen Ligon, who is known for his explorations of race, language, sexuality and identity. Ligon’s work employs confrontational statements that are painted boldly on canvas, or even produced in neon.

Dany Pen, whose background is Cambodian, continues what she began some years ago in a BSoA exhibition. In that show, she dealt with the genocide and displacement of the Cambodian people under the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. However, the deaths and displacements were mostly those that affected her family. In this Biennial, she is dealing with the perpetrators of that genocide: Pol Pot and other leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Her installation is called “Erasures” and the video presentation shows her erasing each portrait. The erasures are then collected in small glass bottles. In her statement, she says that she focuses on how memory and history are preserved, salvaged and revived through the displacements of individuals and groups. Through the erasing of the portraits of the Khmer Rouge leadership, however, Dany Pen seems to want to forget this part of her past, but even in her erasures, something from the past is retained and remembered.

Will Collieson is the only artist in this exhibit who has been in every one of the BNG biennials and this year, his two contributions, although not so large as in the last biennial, is nevertheless equally engaging. The flying chair, actually a recreation of a lawn chair, is hung from the ceiling, in such a way as to give it the appearance of flying through the air. Note also the complex shadows that it casts. That in itself, is an important aspect of the work. Collieson’s other piece, “Time and Tide,” utilises a group of found balusters, that had been discarded in the sea, for who knows how long. Some are in a fairly good state of preservation, while others are quite eroded. The way they are exhibited, is reminiscent of a chess game.

James Cooper is featured twice in the 2012 Biennial, once alone and then in collaboration with Russell de Moura, in what they call the Fungus Art Collective. He is showing a series of photographs called “Love Experiment #1, #2 and #3. In his biennial statement he likens his way he working to cooking, in that he brings together different ingredients to make something tasty. In his three photographs, he has combined elements that may seem incongruous, but at the same time, engaging. In #1, for example, he shows a semi-nude figure with ten lit and dripping wax candles balanced on her back. Lighted candles carry all kinds of symbolic content, but the artist, it seems, has deliberately left its meaning open ended, inviting viewers to create their own interpretations. One question, which may seem trivial, but at the same time, is uppermost in many minds, is this: How did the model not get burned from all that molten wax?

The Fungus Collective, which is a collaboration between James Cooper, Russell de Moura and others, undertook to work within the space of the City Hall lobby; recreating its character and possibly giving it a new meaning. They call it, “ Ouroboros,” which is an ancient symbol of a serpent or dragon eating its tail. This is said to represent self-reflexivity or cyclicality. Accordingly, the collaborators see this piece as a loose interpretation of Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development, or the eight stages of the journey of life. That sounds awfully profound but it comes across as two guys having fun.

The maximum number of submissions to the BNG Biennial is five and Christina Hutchings submitted five and all were accepted. Of the five, one is large and placed in a central position in the Main Gallery. The others are small, but one, while seemingly small, is only a part of what is actually her largest, albeit, fairly hidden piece. Christina Hutchings, takes two different avenues to making art. One approach is highly planned, the other more intuitive. In the past, hemore planned pieces were large, whereas her more intuitive works were mostly on the smaller side. With her current Biennial pieces, she has reversed this procedure and the large, centrally positioned piece, called “Look and Report Back,” is the more spontaneous.

With “Look Back and Report,” Christina has utilised various tools from around her studio, including an aluminium ladder, carpenter’s level and surveyors rod, along with wood panels and gouache. It appears that she has pulled all these bits and pieces together and then, by moving this against that and so on, has worked out a balanced composition. With that in mind, I said, tongue in cheek, that it was a cross between a building site and a Piet Mondrian painting.

Christina’s four other works form a series that explores various aspects of line, but at the same time, what comes across is her background as an architect. Her earlier paintings and constructions often had a nautical feel about them, but these are more architectural and this is reinforced by the title of one of her works, which is “After the Nolli Plan.” The Nolli plan is a detailed map of Rome that was produced by Giambattista Nolli, about 1736. Nolli was an Italian architect and surveyor.

In “Line Above,” Christina Hutchings has actually drawn a plan of the National Gallery, this being necessary to indicate the placement of a dashed string that runs around the upper edge of the Main Gallery. This is possibly the most subtle aspect of the exhibit, but knowing about it, you should be able to find it.

In the upper mezzanine, left side, you will find an animated video by Sunell Lombard that recalls the work of her South African compatriot, William Kentridge and like Kentridge, she is fascinated by the way people interact with each other and deal with everyday situations. One character in the film, a young woman, appears to be a self portrait of Sunell and as she has said, “In many cases my art is self-reflective in that it explores emotions, situations and anxieties that I deal with myself.”

Louisa Bermingham Flannery continues to explore aspects of feminism, through her use of hairballs, but more than that, she has recreated her studio, as an installation. This too, is in the upper mezzanine, right side .

“Waiting for Something #1 & #2,” by Edwin Smith, questions whether his fellow Bermudians are at odds with the modern world as stated by the United Nations, or if it is true that we Bermudians have always been great at taking advantage of living in the in-between. Are these perspectives of strength or indecision and what does this mean for the future? His paintings are freely executed grisailles in charcoal and acrylic, that shows groups of people waiting around, but one character in the composition is pointing forward, somewhat expectedly. He stands out, but what is he doing? To what is he pointing?

This BNG Biennial is unique, in that there are two examples of collaborative art, one by the already mentioned Fungus Art Collective, the other by Jamie Macmillan & Rohan Shastri. Macmillan & Shastri in their collaboration, produced four photographs that depict in a highly funky manner, the four classical elements, earth air, water and fire. Each seems to be placed in a local, Bermudian setting.

Kevin Morris continues his highly detailed, overall paint and collage compositions. In his two Biennial works, the influence of Byzantine art is apparent. One work that especially caught my attention is “The Battle Between Them and Us and the Unknown Outcome.” Kevin Morris’ compositions are characterised by being densely crowded and highly detailed. If anything, his current work is more crowded than ever and brings to mind Byzantine mosaics, even though, in terms of materials and techniques, his work is thoroughly modern.

Bryan Ritchie’s drawings, are, I gather, a series of marks that, having been randomly put on paper, eventually coalesce into identifiable realities. His two charcoal drawings, entitled, “How to Make a Princess” and “How to Make a Prince,” have within, a dominant feature, that divides along lines of perceived gender. For example, in the “princess” drawing, a highly elaborate, very lacy canopy bed takes centre stage in the composition, whereas, with the “Prince,” it is a castle, but one that resembles, more than anything else, the inflatable kind seen in children’s play areas. He writes in his artist statement, that his “recent work questions long established yet often-unproven principles that guide our decisions.” Is he calling into question generally held concepts regarding what is thought to be masculine qualities, versus the feminine?

The photograph, “Connection” by Guluzar Ritchie, shows two shadowy individuals against a dark background, lighting cigarettes, by holding one against the other. That is the most obvious connection, but probing deeper, there is also the question of the connection of the individuals seen emerging out of the shadows, although one is indicated solely by a hand holding a cigarette. Compositionally, it is engaging in that the white cigarettes dominate the composition, still, the face on the left and the hand on the right, are also important secondary aspects of the composition, in that they are connected to the cigarettes.

Alan C. Smith’s video is dark and disturbing, as was his performance at the BNG Biennial opening. Indeed, the performance was, in many ways, an extension of his video. But what is there about his work that disturbs? There are several parts of the video that are memorable, such as the open mouth with a bladed instrument within and then there is the giant eye, surrounded by a scaly, reptilian skin, but more than that, his use colour, especially red, which is often contrasted with black, that is so horrifying. The open mouth scene recalls other horrifying open mouth scenes, such as the woman in Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” who, having been shot on the now famous Odessa steps by Czarist soldiers, visually screams. An even earlier visual scream is that created by Edvard Munch in his renowned painting, “The Scream” and that too, depicts an open mouth. Additionally, Alan C. Smith’s use of red becomes symbolic of blood and further recalls the emphasis in Nazi Germany on “Blut und Boden,” (Blood and Soil). His video brings to mind, many of the horrors of modern times.

Teresa Kirby Smith states that night photography has always interested her and in at least two of her three Biennial photographs, she creates something of the spookiness often experienced by the mere fact of it being dark. Additionally there is the consideration of darkness as coverup. Because there is much we cannot see or know that may be lurking in the dark, many experience a sense of foreboding and fear of the dark. As an example, her picture entitled “Possessed” suggests, by its title, this idea of the unknown, either in the dark of night or in the darkness of the mind. This large, rather soft focused, black and white photograph depicts a man, who having been lighted from below, casts an even larger shadow on the wall behind him. The man is also ghostly in appearance, hence its spookiness.

The Bermuda National Gallery’s Bacardi Limited Biennial exhibition continues through November 24, 2012.

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Published Aug 17, 2012 at 7:52 am (Updated Aug 17, 2012 at 7:51 am)

The smallest BNG Biennial, but it’s consistently good

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