From the Archives: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

empty-art-gallery-in-museum

Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011), which is taken from a section which explores how artists in Jamaica have marketed their work – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.

The post is not illustrated, as I was unable to get permissions from the Spencer estate in a timely manner at the time of submitting my dissertation and am not able to pursue this solely for the purpose of this impromptu post. Reproductions of Ken Spencer’s work are however widely available online and I encourage readers to search and peruse these.

[There are a number of] Jamaican artists who have devised effective individual marketing strategies and acquired significant wealth in the process. Barrington Watson, as we have seen, has controlled the promotion and pricing of his work by operating his own galleries. His friend and contemporary Ken [Abendana] Spencer (1929-2005), who peddled his works to locals, expatriates and tourists, was a more extreme example.[1]

Spencer started out selling his sketches on a street corner in Downtown Kingston. He joined Barrington Watson in London in 1952 but did not study art there, as Watson had hoped. Instead he started selling his works directly to Jamaican professionals who were hungry for reminders of home. (Greenland 2006) On returning to Jamaica, he continued this direct marketing strategy and Watson remembered that “he would go around the island in a car, and sell his work in Montego Bay and Negril. He would put a bunch of works into a car and his idea was to come back with none” (Ibid.). He personally visited potential buyers, many of them first-time art buyers, and often left the hesitant with a stack of paintings to ponder, to come back a few days later to an almost guaranteed sale (Moo Young 2006). His paintings can be seen in many hotel and bank lobbies, the offices of doctors, dentists and other professionals, and middle class homes.

Most of Spencer’s works represent “traditional” Jamaican subject matter, such as market women and mento musicians – reassuring images of “Old Time Jamaica,” as one contributor to his obituary put it (Greenland 2006). They are painted in a recognizable, confident gestural style: typically, the image is invoked by just a few broad brush or palette knife strokes and set against a monochrome background, often the white gesso undercoating of the canvas. [His large, prominently placed and curvilinear signature served as his trademark.] Spencer’s sketchy semi-abstract style – which in itself challenges the assumption that Jamaican audiences do not respond to abstraction – also reflected his goal to produce and sell as many works as possible. He reputedly worked on several canvases simultaneously, which were lined up so that he would not have to clean off his brushes to change colors, and thus saved time and paints. (Moo Young 2006) He also once told David Boxer that a painting was not economical if it took more than 30 minutes to complete – the sort of stories that horrified “knowing” art lovers in Jamaica.[2]

Spencer’s expansive, jovial personality played a crucial role in his sales and he cultivated his image as a notorious eccentric. He lived in Portland in a self-designed, six-storied castle and willingly entertained local and tourist visitors there, although it was implied that works would be bought. Spencer also frequented the New Kingston hotel bars in search of sales. The art dealer and framer Herman van Asbroeck tells a story that illustrates Spencer’s ingenious “traveling salesman” tactics:

A year ago a man came into the shop and put a Ken Spencer on the desk. He wanted to have it framed. I asked him: ‘You bought a Ken Spencer?’ And he replied: ‘No, I won it!’ Apparently, he had come to Kingston for a builder’s conference and a group of them had gone out for a drink. They ended up in the Hilton at 2:00 a.m. Suddenly a gentleman approached their table and asked if they wanted to play a game. He told them he had a number in his pocket and then he marked out cards 1 to 5. Everyone took a number and the customer in my shop was the winner. Then Ken Spencer introduced himself. By the end of the night, all the people at the table had bought paintings! (Greenland 2006)

These anecdotes, also, marked Spencer as one who was not a “serious” artist.

While he occasionally produced more ambitious works, Spencer was not an artist who strove to produce “masterpieces” but one who deliberately produced generic paintings that were recognizably “a Ken Spencer.” [He] did not significantly pressure local cultural institutions for public recognition and never had an exhibition in a gallery.[3] When asked why, he claimed that he did not need such exposure because all of Jamaica was his gallery (Moo Young 2006). His sense of achievement thus came from the prevalence of his work in the Jamaican environment. Others, however, took up his cause and already during his lifetime there were heated arguments within the art community about Spencer’s artistic merits and the NGJ’s neglect of his work was cited as evidence of the elitism of the Jamaican art establishment.

Spencer was an undeniably gifted painter and the local popularity of his work is a cultural phenomenon that warrants its own recognition. The recent attempts at inserting him into the national canons, however, obscure that had he handled his work differently, he could certainly have been a recognized member of the post-Independence mainstream. Spencer was unapologetic about being primarily motivated by economic gain and opted to disregard the processes by which artistic worth is conventionally determined. He thus represents an instructive counterpart to those contemporary artists who resist the forces of the market and, despite the fact that he had far less to say, succeeded where they have failed by reaching deep into Jamaican society. Spencer’s choices also separate him from Barrington Watson, who used more conventional art sales methods and always asserted the “high art” status of his work. While Watson’s exact position in the local art hierarchies has been contentious, his inclusion in the national canons is quite secure, unlike Spencer whose chances at consecration as a “Jamaican master” will always be tenuous, because he broke the codes of “high art” in his pursuit of commercial success.

Endnotes

[1] He was commonly known as Ken Abendana Spencer during his lifetime but the lawyers responsible for his estate insist that his legal name was “Kenneth Abondarno Spencer” (Forth Blake 2006).

[2] Personal communication, David Boxer, January 11, 2006.

[3] The NGJ owns three Spencers but none are on permanent display. One of these works was transferred from the IoJ collection in 1974 and the other two were part of a major donation by the then Chairman of the NGJ Aaron Matalon in 1999, which sought to address lacunas in the NGJ’s collection. While there may have been other expressions of discontent on Spencer’s part, I know of only one incident, a year or two before he died, when he complained to the NGJ Registrar about not being adequately represented in the NGJ’s collection (personal communication, Roxanne Silent, Registrar, NGJ, March 12, 2008).

SOURCES

Greenland, Jonathan. “Remembering Ken Spencer.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1-2

Moo Young, Howard. “Jamaica Is My Gallery.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1

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4 thoughts on “From the Archives: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

  1. This has always been a funny issue for me. The idea of the “market”. It would seem that artists who have secured financial success have, in so doing, secured “high art doubt” amidst the “connoisseurs”. And, if an artists has not been able to secure some financial success with their work it is because ” the work is too advanced for the buying public”. Both clearly are not exclusive positions, but they are held as such. One of the things that “painters” hate to admit is the “vulgarity” of an artist like Diego Velazquez. If you buy any book on the artist you will see the same handful of works over and again, why?, because what we know from history is that his intent with art was to find his way into the court of the king. As soon as he was inducted to court Velazquez never picked up another brush. Lol. Does that mean it is bad art?? Of course not…artist’s motives and methods should not affect the quality of the work to the critic. How about this one…when you mentioned Spencer’s multiple canvases I was reminded of studying James Mallord William Turner at the Metropolitan museum of art. It is the exact same process Turner used for his canvases….multiple surfaces one which the artist went around the room laying in “atmosphere”. Though he was a landscape painter those works were studio paintings… so again, should the method and treatment of the work by the artist affect wether it is good are bad art???

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    • Thanks, Phillip. It is indeed a big and complex question. Actually started with a discussion elsewhere on the status of artists such as Thomas Kinkade and Bob Ross – the latter was recently included in a museum exhibition in the USA, which caused some critical waves. The relationship between art and its commodification has, certainly since the advent of modern capitalism, always been a very ambiguous one. The higher end of art market thrives on what some have called the “commercial appeal of anti-commercialism” but going “commercial” openly has traditionally come with significant “penalties” in terms of artistic standing – it is a very interesting and largely unresolved question, such an interesting dance. Personally, I am less concerned with whether somebody like Spencer was a good or a bad artist – I fully accept that he was a painter of talent – but with how he positioned himself and how he was positioned by others in the Jamaican art landscape. And with how his work is best represented in our art narratives. What I am most interested in of all, is why artists such as him and others such as Richard Hall, have such appeal in the Jamaican context. Is there anything other than its reasonable price, the active marketing strategies and the accessible and relatable subject matter that makes it particularly appealing? How is artistic value and status negotiated in that segment of the market, and then challenged in another, where such work is not taken seriously? And why do persons choose to buy this work over that of, say, a very promising Edna Manley graduate. The dynamics of the local art market, which is highly segmented, are so poorly understood, and the same holds true for its social implications, and its implications for how institutions such as the NGJ and the EMC are seen by the general public. There is a need for a big and thorough research project on the subject.

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  2. I thoroughly understand the problem of the non-commercial angle being made commercial. The same thing happened to outsider art. A lot of insiders started producing it. I have always thought that the academics tend to scuff at the collectors and potential collectors in Jamaica. Every other art market I have seen creates synergy between the two groups. I find that as art professionals we can be very dismissive when talking to people who are not trained in looking, and we make fun of their tastes instead of educating people….which is out actual job. Then we have the nerve to ask the same people for financial support for our exhibitions etc. Very strange. Yes, I think that 20th century industrialisation plays a key factor and it is one of the subjects I want to touch on at Kimani Beckford’s opening. All very interesting.

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    • Yes, those of us who live in the bubble of the art world need to understand better how art is understood outside. That does not mean having to pander to meaningless populism because, as we know, bad art exists and is in fact quite plentiful. But it means having to be committed to the conversations beyond the inner sanctum of the art world. Looking forward to your speech!

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