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Testing Boundaries: In the studio with Valentine and Hutchings

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Testing boundaries: Nancy Valentine in her studio (Photograph supplied)

Curating an exhibition, if done with insightfulness, is as much a work of art as any particular item in it.

Such is the case with the current Bermuda National Gallery exhibition, Testing Boundaries: In the studio with Nancy Valentine and Christina Hutchings. The co-curators in this instance are Eve Godet-Thomas and Peter Lapsley.

Peter, however, pointed out that his role in co-curating was mostly a supporting one to Eve’s vision.

But what do curators do? Museums and galleries typically employ curators whose task it is to acquire, care for and develop a collection.

They also arrange displays of the collection, or at times borrow exhibitions and even loan works for exhibition elsewhere. They also interpret exhibitions to inform the public. In that light, the BNG is a special kind of educational institution.

Given that this is Women’s History Month, it is also fortuitous that the BNG is graced with such a meaningful exhibition.

The impetus for the show however began with the 2021 BNG exhibition Illusion and Abstraction: Capturing the Landscape.

It was in that earlier exhibition that two paintings, one by Nancy Valentine, the other by Christina Hutchings were exhibited side by side.

In placing these two paintings together, it became apparent that, although stylistically different, there was nevertheless a synergy between them.

This led to the idea of a joint exhibition where this linkage could be more closely examined.

Not surprisingly these two paintings are once again displayed together. Given the fact that they were the initial inspiration for the show, it is only natural that they be so highlighted.

As for the synergy between them, it is notable that against a fairly muted background each painting has a standout patch of colour.

With Nancy Valentine’s 1950s painting Quarry in Warwick, the swatch is red orange, whereas in Hutchings’ 2015 Modern House North Shore, the patch is a complementary aqua-blue.

Considering that these two paintings were created some sixty years apart, it seems that the complementary colour swatches are coincidental, and not intentional or consciously paired.

In addition to these colour relationships, the two paintings share a quasi-cubistic connection.

In Quarry in Warwick the rectilinear aspect of the cut stone brings to mind the faceting aspect of analytical cubism. The same applies to the architecture in Modern House North Shore.

Quasi cubistic: Quarry in Warwick by Nancy Valentine (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

For those not in the know, this duo exhibition highlights the creations of a mother, Valentine, and daughter, Hutchings.

The idea of testing boundaries suggests that there are limits, in this case to art. But art boundaries are continually being tested.

Indeed, one of the refreshing aspects of art is its ongoing renewal of human vision. The dictum in physics that an action begets a reaction is also true in art.

The question with this exhibition is what, when or how are boundaries being tested?

Valentine, from as early as the 1950s, brought to her art an adventuresome spirit and a tendency to innovation.

This was manifested especially in her choice of materials, most notably epoxy resin.

Valentine saw its use as an art medium as being particularly modern. It is, after all, the by-product of science. How much more modern could you get?

Let it be: Christina Hutchings (Photograph supplied)

With Valentine, however, it was not only her use of epoxy resin that was new, it was also her application of this product, particularly to the making of screens in which she embedded natural materials such as sea-fans, ferns, shells, butterflies or seahorses.

These were seen as being especially Bermudian; so much so, a pair of her screens was gifted to Princess Margaret on the occasion of her marriage to Anthony Armstrong-Jones.

Of note also is the international press coverage that her work received, including National Geographic magazine, House Beautiful and the Chicago Sunday Tribune. Additionally, in 1960, one of her screens was awarded a prize at the third annual Design Derby held in Miami, Florida.

Considering that the epoxy resin that Valentine utilised as a new art medium was first applied to the making of such as boats, it was a natural extension for her to apply it to the production of her designs in lawn or beach furniture.

This is another instance of her pushing boundaries and another example of her versatility. There is an example of one of her chairs in the exhibition.

Especially Bermudian: Modern House on North Shore by Christina Hutchings (Photograph supplied)

In 1959, Valentine participated in an exhibition of modern art held in the Masonic Hall on Reid Street in Hamilton.

A local art critic known as Albatross, whoever that was, singled out Valentine and another artist known as “Eric” for negative criticism.

Albatross, in his/her write-up, never felt obliged to indicate what was hated about Valentine’s or the other artist’s work but simply stated that he hated modern art.

In the end, we know more about Albatross’s taste in art rather than any particular information about Valentine’s work or the work of any other participant in that exhibition.

Valentine’s submission was titled Red Tide. From what I have been told, Valentine usually favoured realism, but at times resorted to abstraction (another example of versatility). I understand that Red Tide was an abstract.

I actually visited this modern show in the Masonic Hall and, although it was back in 1959, I still recall liking it. I came away with positive thoughts.

There are other examples of Valentine’s work in the show, but space limits constrain and thus we move on to the daughter, Hutchings.

She brings to her contribution qualifications in art, but also in architecture. Because of these underpinnings, there is a thoughtfulness and discipline in what she does, as well as the beautiful and the poetic.

Certain words come to mind, such as clean, pure and nautical. Given her Bermudian background as well as her mother’s encouragement, becoming an artist/architect was a logical outcome.

Whereas Valentine tended to the realistic, but occasionally made abstracts, Hutchings tends to the abstract, but occasionally paints realistically.

Number 8 in the catalogue refers to an Umbrian landscape by Hutchings that is fairly realistic and poetically beautiful. It is an oil painting of 1987 titled Road to the Mill.

In this small painting on paper, the area surrounding the central landscape is painted the colour of the stones in that part of Umbria, which is an unusual but poetic addition.

I hope everyone takes the time to see this painting, as it is a beauty and a balm for the soul.

In contrast, a large seascape called Lost dominates Hutchings’s exhibition space. It recalls old nautical charts, those kind of charts that have crisscrossing and radiating lines sometimes known as a compass rose.

These were aids to navigation, but what is absent from Hutchings’s painting is an actual map of wherever, such as Bermuda.; this work is an acrylic, with painterly brushwork depicting sea and sky.

This latter painting brings to mind a story from the 19th century, about a ship of the Royal Navy that was sent out to the Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda, but after sailing all over the western Atlantic returned to the UK to report that the island no longer existed. Lost indeed!

Another nautical work is Double Take. It’s an installation, which, although not exactly a new concept to the BNG it is, nevertheless, outside the norm.

One of its attractions is in the quality of the workmanship – its precision, its newness, its brightness. It’s a quality often seen in the upkeep of ships, in super yachts. The title reflects the polished twin anchors, but also the double blue ropes.

Now about boundaries; what are boundaries? Governments create laws and that is one kind of boundary; then there are social and relational boundaries.

These are boundaries that we disrespect at our peril; but what about boundaries in art? In the case of Valentine, her use of epoxy resin differed from the use of traditional art materials and in doing so, she moved into unknown territory.

Since this was a new material, she had no way of knowing how durable or unchanging over time it would be.

She was taking a chance that it would work in her favour and it allowed her to do things she could not do with traditional materials. So, with Valentine, her boundary was a material one.

But what are some other art boundaries? There are ethical boundaries to consider – art that possibly offends if and when we as artists cross lines of religion, race, gender, or possibly political lines.

There are also aesthetic boundaries – think beauty versus ugliness. Consider also stylistic boundaries; realism versus abstraction.

As for Hutchings, what boundary does her work test or cross? Here is a possibility: maybe her boundary is more cognitive. Some seem to need everything spelled out. Her work is more suggestive than explicit. Her work requires cogitation.

Whatever! Hutchings’s work is beautiful.

While some think that art must always have meaning, others are happy enough with it just being.

Testing Boundaries: In the Studio with Nancy Valentine and Christina Hutchings is on display in the Upper Mezzanine Gallery of the Bermuda National Gallery until June and it highly recommended.

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Published March 23, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated March 21, 2022 at 4:09 pm)

Testing Boundaries: In the studio with Valentine and Hutchings

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