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Biennial has freed artists to explore the world as they see it

Insightful artwork: the Bermuda Biennial 2022 continues until December (Photograph courtesy of the Bermuda National Gallery)

The 1992 opening of the Bermuda National Gallery and subsequently, the inauguration of its Biennial Exhibition was a major catalyst for developments in the visual arts in Bermuda.

Now 30 years on, it is useful to look back, to consider the impact this institution and its biennial has had on the cultural life of the Bermuda community.

The initial idea for a biennial was the suggestion of the late Dennis Sherwin and from the outset, the National Gallery invited international jurors to select the entries for each biennial. The thinking was and is that if the BNG held to its high standard, artists would strive to meet the challenge and indeed, they have.

So what kind of impact has the BNG Biennial had on the local art scene? For starters, the biennial has encouraged and freed Bermuda’s artists to explore the world as they, as individuals, see it. The upshot has been a greater variety of creative endeavours and expressions. Additionally, there has been over the last three decades, an overall improvement in art skills and techniques, plus a greater professionalism.

With this current, 2022 Biennial, over 70 artists submitted work, but only 32 artists had their work selected. I am told that the jurors were particularly demanding in upholding a high standard.

The jurors for the Biennial were, Alexandria Smith who is head of the painting department at the Royal College of Art, London and Claire Gilman, chief curator at the Drawing Centre, New York. This year’s Biennial also introduced a new component to the show, that of poetry and the juror for poetry was Richard Georges who is the first poet laureate from the British Virgin Islands. For this review my focus will be on the visual art, still, the poetry aspect of the show is beautifully exhibited.

This year’s visual arts submissions are wide ranging, including drawings, paintings, photography, videos, printmaking, sculpture and installations. Budget some time to attend the Biennial, it is thought provoking and deserving of your time.

Abi Box’s two abstract gestural paintings are notably bright, all sunshine really. One that got my attention is called, Silver Oyster Sun. Of her paintings, she says that she likes to think of the possibilities present in gesture and suggestion.

James Cooper’s two wooden totemic cutouts in painted plywood are in slight relief and since they are lit from multiple light sources, they cast multiple multicoloured shadows. These shadows are, in part what makes the work successful.

John Gardner’s three small hand drawn, multilayered images should be read as a singular artwork. They are reminiscent of complex city maps. In imagination one can wander down streets, alleyways etc. It also appears that these drawings were made on something already printed. Although small, they require time and close viewing.

Charlie Godet Thomas’s work defies categorisation; the work being a mix of drawing, painting and language. In his artist’s statement, he wrote that his painted works combine historical and contemporary methods and references. He likened his approach as Blakean in that he pairs language and imagery. Altogether, the meaning of the work is summarised in its title, which is Downpour Dream Song.

The work is about decline and downpour describes the downward trend expressed in the case through substance abuse. The work itself is on newsprint, which I suggest, was a purposeful choice as newsprint is highly acidic and will also self destruct in short order.

Gherdai Hassell continues her exploration into identity in her transparent layered work, which I see as a kind of genealogical tree. We usually know a fair amount about our parent’s lives and also our grandparents, but if we go back several generations, our knowledge often becomes more limited, until we have maybe only names or even gaps; completely unknown ancestors. In this Biennial piece, she uses layers of transparent fabric and aluminium rods.

Each layer has images that get smaller and more mysterious as we go back through the layers. This work suggests that we carry within us, aspects of our ancestry. We are who we are because of who they were.

Teresa Kirby Smith’s photographic triptych highlights the development of photography with three photographic techniques. The first is a cyanotype, an early photographic printing process that is typically blue. It was invented in 1841 by Sir John Herschel. The middle photograph is a gelatin silver print; the most commonly used process in black and white photography. The third photograph brings us up-to-date with a digital print. Each photograph is of a similar image; a double exposure of a rocky cliff face with cedar tree.

The double exposure can be read as a metaphor for the passing of time. This is of interest as we often think of photography as freezing time. The concept of space-time as is indicated in this triptych goes back to the pioneer photographer, Edweard Muybridge, the father of chronophotography and his research into human and animal locomotion and also cinematography.

Cynthia Kirkwood’s three submissions are enigmatic, mysterious really. All three are made with a variety of unusual materials, such as walnut ink, rosewater and various pigments, such as gold, mica and garnet. Each of her marks are by their very nature, beautiful little gems. These small works, it seems are the product of creative intuition, meaning they are produced without much conscious thought.

Kirkwood says that her Triple Spinning Balance, came to her in a dream. The concept of spinning is a fundamental aspect of all nature, from the sub atomic level to that of the galactic. There is even some thought that the universe itself is spinning. Although Kirkwood’s art is small, her concepts are huge.

From what I recall from past exhibitions, Catherine Lapsley’s work is usually based on the grid, which tends to the static, but in her current work, the grid takes off from the more fixed left to a sweeping diagonal on the right, This suggests swift movement. At the same time the left is darker, more greenish, while the right is dominated by a progressively lighter blue, especially on the upper right which enhances this sense of motion.

Kevin Morris is up to his intricately, densely packed overall imagery of just about everything you can imagine, from architectural elements, Greek Orthodox iconography and paraphernalia to Persian carpets and Viking ships. You name it, you will most likely find it. The overall impact to all this upfront, perched on the picture plane imagery magnifies a great sense of magnificent flatness. Like several other works in this show, this highly engaging autobiographical painting requires the viewer’s considerable time.

It is possible to see Bryan Richie’s lithograph from several different perspectives, as a cardboard box that has caught fire to a high-rise building that is on fire. The box cum building is surrounded by four toylike helicopters. I say toy; for each vehicle is attached to the ground by what appears to be wires (or is it a water hose?). One can guess that they are some kind of fire fighting rotorcraft. Flames and smoke are seen emitting from the box/building’s top, which then magically become flowers. This is a wonderfully imaginative work of art.

Michael Walsh’s contribution to the Biennial recalls the pessimism of Ecclesiastes. Here is a quote from the artists’s statement: “Our desire to prove ourselves worthy alienates us from each other, and from experiencing the whole imagined systems of value, fabricate division. Recognising beauty creates ugliness.”

The work itself is called, Nothing Remains. Well not quite. What remains are bones set in concrete. Back to Ecclesiastes; another quote: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his Labour which he taketh under the sun. One generation passeth away and another generation cometh.” It's a work that certainly grabs your attention.

Sabriyya Harvey’s Over de Boundary, is of course about cricket, still, it got me thinking about boundaries generally. We live with all kinds of boundaries, many of which are shifting enough to create tensions and stress. In her impressive painting, the boundary is a see-through red plastic, that at least allows us to see the game, if even from a distance.

Alex Allardyce’s monoprint recalls the Protracter Series created by Frank Stella back in the late 1960s. Having looked at this artist’s website, I did see that he has printed this same image in a variety of different colours. The term; “monoprint” needs some explaining however. It can mean the artist made only one print from a plate that could have been used to make multiple prints. It can also mean the making of one print from a plate that by its nature can only make one print.

In the case of this Biennial submission, the artist’s use of monoprint is of the former definition. The inspiration for this image was a decorative concrete block that inspired the artist/architect during lockdown.

AB Wilson’s beautiful green photograph is an extension of her experiences with nature, trees in particular. Her apt title is The Language of Green Things In her statement, she writes: “Imagine if humans had the language to communicate with trees, the leaves would absorb our meaning and we, in turn, would embrace their syllables.”

An Act of Erasure (Neriah’s Hill), a photograph by Rachel Simons, is of an Ireland Island ruin that draws attention to a unique history. Ruins generally stimulate ones imagination, in that their histories are an aspect of human history, which frequently, unfortunately have become obscured through the passage of time.

Ruins often have about them an aura of mystery. Note: this photograph is accompanied by an audio installation with the sounds of natural Bermuda. Its worth spending time with this installation especially if you let your imagination wander, while listening to the sounds of kiskadees and other melodies of nature.

In attempting to review the BNG Biennial in more than a superficial manner, but keeping in mind the necessity of concision, I have had to eliminate numerous Biennial participants that deserve recognition. This is unfortunate and for me, regretful, painful really. In writing reviews, it's my intension to inform the general public as best I can, but also encourage the arts and artists.

The BNG Biennial continues through December 2022 which allows time for multiple visits. The nature of this show is such that revisits help us see each work with increasing insightfulness.

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Published August 13, 2022 at 8:02 am (Updated August 15, 2022 at 8:04 am)

Biennial has freed artists to explore the world as they see it

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