Katrina Coombs – Golden Flow
This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.
Taking a closer look at the NGJ Summer Exhibition reveals a few pleasant surprises but also pulls the exhibition’s weaknesses and failings into sharper perspective.
Perhaps the most outstanding work in the exhibition is Lucille Junkere’s The Yoruba Blues from Abeokuta Nigeria to Abeokuta Jamaica, which consists of a set of patterned embroidery stitch samples on handmade paper dyed with natural indigo. It is a sophisticated and visually stunning example of research-based artistic practice that delves sensitively but knowingly into the transatlantic cultural connections between Africa and the Caribbean. And I will agree with the curator’s essay that there is a triumph of textile and fiber arts of sorts, as another outstanding work in the exhibition is Katrina Coombs’ Golden Flow, a handwoven red and gold draped scarf form, which transforms the exhibition space allocated to it into a beautifully articulated, quasi-architectural form, making a simple but powerful statement.
Norma Rodney Harrack has contributed two exquisitely beautiful sculptural vase forms, which are among her most remarkable works in recent years. Laura Facey is another artist who understands that artists should only submit their best to a NGJ exhibition. There is debate about the politics of her continued engagement with the slavery and plantation history, and the imagery used in the process, but I will leave that for another time, as there is no doubt that Heart of a Man (Inspired by Henry Blake’s “Black Man Hung By the Ribs” and a seed from the Barringtonia Tree) is an exceptional work, formally and technically, but also because of its historical and art-historical references and powerful emotional impact.
Noteworthy and interesting work was also contributed by Amy Laskin, Carol Crichton, Camille Chedda, Shoshanna Weinberger, Winston Patrick, Richard Nattoo, Rani Carson, Esther Chin, Claudia Porges Byer and Ania Freer – as the names I have mentioned thus far illustrate, women appear to have outperformed the men in this exhibition. And it was good to see recent graduates of the Edna Manley College such as Jordan Harrison, Tiana Anglin, and Nadine Hall, especially since younger, contemporary artists are not very well represented in the exhibition.
On the other side of the spectrum, the photography entries are particularly disappointing and only a few transcend the club photography level, which is unfortunate since Jamaica has produced quite a few outstanding modern and contemporary photographers. I have to ask what a box set with reproductions of photographs Albert Chong produced more than twenty years ago is doing in this exhibition and must conclude that he is simply taking his invited artist status for granted. I am also non-plussed by the two bizarre mixed-media heads by Hasani Claxton, as I fail to see any artistic merit or interest, or the patently amateurish textile collage by Bernard Hoyes, which is not consistent with the standard of work this quite well-established artist is known for. In both instances, it appears that it was the subject, rather than the quality of the work itself, that caused it to be selected by the judges: the issues of black female anger in Claxton’s work and the reference to Sparrow in Hoyes’. But in both instances, the work is simply not good enough.
I could go on with several other examples of works that should really not have been in this exhibition, but perhaps the most distressing sight was a piece of “string art,” as this was something I never imagined I would see at the NGJ, let alone in a competitive, juried exhibition. Its maker, George Lecky, a retired mathematics teacher, has recently received major publicity in the form of a feature in the Gleaner, and he apparently runs a small business producing and selling such items – more power to him if he can supplement his income from making and selling these items, while connecting it to his interest in mathematics, and furthermore gets the support of a national newspaper for his efforts. And I gather that Mr Lecky is a very friendly elderly gentleman who was over the moon that his work had been accepted by the NGJ. But the truth is that Mr Lecky is not done any real favors by being shown at the NGJ and in this exhibition, as it creates a false impression, to him and others, of where he is at artistically. By being shown in the Summer Exhibition, his work will furthermore be subjected to the sort of critical scrutiny, as art, that it would not have encountered if it was shown in a more appropriate forum for such products.
It pains me to do so, on a personal level, but I have to say it like it is: while made and mounted with care and potentially a pleasant addition to someone’s home or office décor, there is nothing extraordinary or outstanding about the sort of string art Mr Lecky practices. In fact, such string art was the rage among craft hobbyists and in high school art departments in the 1970s and it is still popular today. Just google “string art” or “geometric string art” and look at the images that come up and you will see exactly how common and formulaic the sort of work Mr Lecky produces is. If Mr Lecky would just have taken the technique a few steps further, and produced something that went, formally and imaginatively, beyond the well-worn formulas, I could have seen the point in including such a work in the exhibition. But as it stands now, I must question the good judgement of the judges on the inclusion of this work.
The social and individual identity of an artist is important to explain a work of art (and, for museums in the 21st century and, especially, the postcolonial world, to ensure that there is adequate diversity and equity), but it should never be used to justify work that otherwise lacks interest. Yet that seems to be exactly what is happening in the Jamaican art world today. Our newspapers are flooded, week after week, with enthusiastic stories about aspiring artists who, in what has become a remarkably standardized narrative, overcame personal adversity to practice their art but have found a way to make it into their small business venture.
In all but a few instances, the art works featured in those (usually lavishly illustrated) promotional articles lack interest, and some are just plainly bad. The mere fact that it is labelled as “art” and that there is a story of personal perseverance and entrepreneurship behind it seems to be enough to warrant exposure in a national newspaper. There is absolutely no critical engagement in those articles – in fact, the art itself is not usually discussed in any detail at all – and there is no sense on the part of the artist or the writer that any critical assessment or further development may be needed. I have to wonder how such “write-ups” are brokered and what purpose they are supposed to serve, other than some misguided attempt at promoting the individuals featured as notable examples of cultural entrepreneurship.
I worry about the impact this sort of press coverage has on how art is perceived by the general public. This is important in a context where many have very conservative and narrow views on art, and where more challenging and accomplished art is routinely ignored by the media or only superficially reported on, with a focus on the social event rather than on the art – I do not think that I have seen a serious exhibition review in the local press since Rachael Barrett’s review of the 2014 Jamaica Biennial in the Observer, which is five years ago now and which was already then an exception. I am also concerned about the implications of the quality of art that is being promoted in the press for the sustainability of the local cultural industries, which will not thrive and reach their full potential if there is no insistence on quality, originality, and innovation, of the kind that the Jamaican cultural community is more than capable of producing. The bar needs to be raised in that field too.
There is, related to this, a much bigger and long-standing problem in the Jamaican art world, namely the inability to separate the personality and social persona of the artist from the art itself and to assess a work of art on its own merits. The NGJ’s reluctance to part with the invited list, in itself, illustrates a lack of will (and courage) to look beyond the social status of the artists involved and the powers, alliances and connections that come with that (and illustrates who, in terms of the social cohort represented, the NGJ believes it is most accountable to). It ought to be possible to critique a work of art on its own merits and demerits, and to select it on that basis for an exhibition, without fear of social repercussions, and irrespective of who the artist is, or who the artist is connected to. Yet that is practically impossible, as I have found out to my own detriment on several occasions over the years when I wrote for the local newspapers (and for this blog!) I believe it is one of the reasons why there is no critical engagement with art in the local media, beyond the brokered “vanity write up.”
And this brings me back to the vexing inconsistencies in terms of how the NGJ Summer Exhibition is composed. It consists of work by invited artists that is not held to the same standards of that of the juried artists, and of the results of a jury process that itself appears to have been quite inconsistent, to the point of being erratic and even unfair to some of the artists whose work was rejected – both the NGJ and the judges have a lot of explaining to do. The judges’ report in the catalogue is stiltedly written and too vague to be of any real use to most artists but it contains a few interesting statements that inadvertently speak to these inconsistencies. It lists among its recommendations that for the juried artists that “[a]rtists working in representational modalities should have their anatomical drawings and paintings reviewed before submission.” I have to ask why this concern is not applied to the invited artists also.
There are, for instance, clear technical deficiencies in the figure paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan, an artist of considerable social status and privilege who has been on the NGJ invited list for many years. Ms MacMillan’s best landscapes are engaging and luminous, and her best portraits brilliantly capture the essence of the person portrayed, so it is not that she has no merit as an artist, but her inability to paint properly articulated and defined limbs, hands, feet and shoulders is a major failing for an artist who has opted for realist, traditional painting techniques. This deficiency is painfully evident in her two paintings in the Summer Exhibition. I am quite sure, however, that I will be lambasted for pointing that out.
While I recognize the challenges that come with having to make curatorial sense of an extremely uneven and diverse exhibition, my concerns also apply to the exhibition installation, which is utterly uninspired and falls short of museum standards and of what the NGJ is capable of. And, for that, unfortunately, I do have to hold the curatorial team responsible. The shade of yellow that was chosen as the main accent color for the exhibition, perhaps in an effort to give the exhibition a “fresh,” less dreary look, is a very difficult color to work with and not a wise choice for the design of the present exhibition. It is furthermore used in all the wrong places, doing absolutely nothing positive for the art works that are placed in relation to it. It certainly does no favors for Norma Rodney Harrack’s extraordinary pieces, which are huddled closely together on a cluster of yellow stands with other, incompatible ceramic works, in a way which furthermore forces frontal viewing, without consideration for the competing visual clutter behind it. It is only after several viewings that I realized how extraordinary they really are.
Nadine Hall’s haunting, ethereal installation, which speaks about troubled masculinities, surely deserved a space of its own, or at least to be placed in dialogue with more compatible works, such as Jordan Harrison’s paintings, which comment on the taboo subject of male rape. Instead, Hall’s work is crammed into a gallery with works that are completely dissonant and unrelated. It is equally hard to understand why Laura Facey’s raw, powerful and physically imposing Heart of a Man has to share its gallery space with some of the bleakest, most lack-lustre art works in the exhibition. Or why Esther Chin’s large weaving installation, Ribbon for Ma, is surrounded by work that relates only on a superficial formal level and, again, placed against a yellow wall with which it is completely incompatible. I could not help but noting that those works in the exhibition that are installed and lit with greater care and sensitivity, such as the installations by Laura Facey and Katrina Coombs, are those where the artist would have been actively involved.
Too much of the exhibition installation seems to be based on merely trying to “match” colours, pattern, or subject matter, instead of generating the sort of inspired and provocative curatorial juxtapositions and conversations that can make a diverse and uneven exhibition like this perform above its pay grade. For an illustration of what such an approach can achieve, please read this short, witty essay for the NGJ blog by Nicole Smythe-Johnson about the dialogues that were strategized, in one of the galleries in the 2012 National Biennial. But that of course also requires having sufficient works of art of the caliber that will facilitate such conversations and that may not have been so evident for the Summer Exhibition. There are just a few hints of such dialogues, for instance between the works of Lucille Junkere, Carol Crichton, Camille Chedda, Courtney Morris and Laura Facey’s second installation in the first major gallery, but most juxtapositions in the exhibition are pedestrian, to the point of seeming haphazard, and several actually detract from the works involved.
I was indeed reminded, with deep nostalgia and sadness, of the 2012 National Biennial, which represented such an exciting moment in the NGJ’s history of curatorial, critical and audience engagement. There was just so much energy and such a strong, intellectually provocative response to that exhibition, which became the stepping stone towards the establishment of the Jamaica Biennial and the Explorations exhibition series. We published several contributed blog posts – the speech by Charles Campbell, who spoke on behalf of the artists at the opening, another post by Nicole Smythe-Johnson, who was Senior Curator at that time, and reflections by Kei Miller and Deanne Bell – the latter was a spontaneous contribution by a visitor who was so inspired by the exhibition that she was compelled to write us about it and we then offered to post her comments.
Today, that energetic spirit seems to have disappeared completely from the NGJ and it is certainly not evident in the Summer Exhibition. I am also saddened by the fate of the NGJ’s blog which, instead as serving as a vehicle for critical engagement and a useful and stimulating resource on Jamaican art and related matters, which is how it was originally conceived, now merely serves as a site for announcements and pointless reports on official visits (in which the NGJ principals, rather than the art, invariably feature prominently.) That too, illustrates where the NGJ is at, and I can only say that an art museum is in serious trouble when its intellectual flame, its commitment to research, self-reflexivity and critical inquiry, appears to have been extinguished, but the flames of vanity and self-congratulation are turned high.
The NGJ ought to be a place to exhibit and engage with the most extraordinary examples of Jamaican and other art, a place where artistic excellence is recognized and vigorously debated, and where standards and practices are clear and equitable. The Summer Exhibition falls dramatically short of that mark and is depressingly parochial in its outlook. The curatorial essay in the catalogue makes reference to the “vitriolic” reviews of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions (after which this exhibition appears to be modeled, an issue which I will leave for another time), but I have to quote a review of the 2019 edition by the Guardian critic Jonathan Jones, as it could just as well have been written about the NGJ Summer Exhibition: “There is a tired, inward looking, end-of-the-road quality to this sour show. No new ideas, no vigour.”
Many questions arise, about the general direction and quality of the NGJ’s current exhibition program. The Summer Exhibition follows close on the heels of the Due West exhibition at National Gallery West (NGW) in Montego Bay, a fully juried exhibition, which was arguably even more uneven and problematically parochial in its outlook. It should have been an exhibition that energized the art scene in Western Jamaica, which is in fact quite interesting and diverse, but it achieved no such thing. What needs to be asked then, is whether such exhibitions, and the populist reasoning that seems to be behind them, really “do good” by the artists in it, by the NGJ as an institution, and by the stakeholders and audiences they are supposed to serve. I would argue that the serious artists who are in the inaugural Summer Exhibition, and those who were in Due West, did not benefit at all from the experience and that such exhibitions can do more damage than good to the artistic communities they claim to represent.
And those are not the only problematic exhibitions the NGJ has shown recently. There have been problems with poorly researched and conceptualized exhibitions, of which the Art of Jamaican Sculpture and Beyond Fashion were two particularly problematic examples (with wall and catalogue texts that were furthermore not up to museum standards), and there have also been questions about policies and best practices. Add to this what appears to be a growing reliance on externally curated exhibitions and it appears that we have a serious problem on our hand when it comes to the NGJ’s curatorial practice. From that perspective, the NGJ’s future may not be thrilling at all.
I do hope that the NGJ’s principals — its Board and its Senior Management — understand that there is no real benefit to be had from pretending that the Summer Exhibition is a success, even though it may have pleased a few interests. The manner in which it accommodates particular, one-sided art world politics is, in fact, one of the main reasons for its failings. There needs to be a serious look at the reasons for the exhibition’s failure to reach a more appropriate standard and to include a more representative cross-section of the local artistic community. I also hope that the NGJ will take a long, hard and, most of all, honest look at the general standards of its exhibitions and programs recently. And I do hope that the NGJ will consider the feedback of its critics, without any defensive (or offensive!) responses this time around. And, most of all, I hope that such reflection will result in making space and time for open conversations with the entire artistic community. Perhaps it is not too late for that public forum that should have been held before the Jamaica Biennial was abandoned, as the voices of the art world need to be heard, in a manner that is genuinely inclusive, and open and respectful to all positions, lest the Kingston Biennial be doomed to become a similar debacle.
On the other side of the equation, now is the time for members of the artistic community to hop off that cool and breezy fence that too many have been sitting on, and to take a position, while asking the probing and pointed questions that need to be asked of the NGJ. The absence of so many artists — established, emerging and new — from the Summer Exhibition makes a strong, implied statement, yes, but that will be obvious only to those in the know, and to those who are prepared to listen, and the latter is not guaranteed. A silent statement like that is too easy to ignore and gloss over, as already appears to be happening with the spin about the alleged inclusiveness of the exhibition, and it is simply not enough in a moment where so much is at stake. Artists elsewhere in the world, for instance with regards to El Museo del Barrio in NYC, are mobilizing their public voices to demand accountability and to agitate for what is in the best interest of the artistic and broader communities they represent, and they are doing so quite effectively.
If the local artistic community does not see it fit to speak up now then it will just have to accept the direction in which the NGJ appears to be moving, with the understanding that silence is consent. But these artists should also understand that the NGJ is not the sole responsibility of the current “powers that be,” who are merely its temporary stewards, but a collective, long-term responsibility of the entire art world. Perhaps it is simply a matter of understanding the many roles and importance of an institution such as the NGJ better, as those may have become taken for granted. Established artists should perhaps remember what exhibiting at the NGJ has meant and done for them, in terms of their early development and career, and consider what needs to be done to ensure that the generations that come after them, including the very exciting young artists who have graduated from the Edna Manley College recently, will enjoy the same quality of opportunities and support. As they say at weddings, speak up now or forever hold your tongue.
Coda: The Aaron Matalon Award
In addition to the NGJ’s curious, unprecedented and quite inappropriate silence on who entered the Summer Exhibition as an invited artist and who entered through the jury, another matter seemed to be subject to a sudden lack of information, the Aaron Matalon Award. The Aaron Matalon Award, which was introduced for the first National Biennial in 2002 and named after the Hon. Aaron Matalon, OJ, who had been the NGJ’s chairman and one of its most generous benefactors. Funded by the NGJ, it has involved a specially designed and crafted medal based on a famous work from the NGJ collection, uniquely commissioned for each edition, and a cash prize. It is the most prestigious award granted by the NGJ.
Just two days before the Summer Exhibition opening, a NGJ press release clearly stated:
The Dawn Scott Memorial Award is one of two awards attached to the 2019 Summer Exhibition, along with the Aaron Matalon Award, which is awarded to an artist who, in the view of the National Gallery’s Exhibitions and Acquisitions Committees, has contributed the strongest entry to the exhibition. This award will also be announced at the exhibition’s opening ceremony on Sunday, July 2.
I had already left the July 28 opening function when the awards were supposed to be announced, there was no announcement about the Aaron Matalon Award. While my attempts to get clarification from the NGJ initially bore no fruit, I have now finally, on August 27, received a response from the Senior Director, Dr Jonathan Greenland, to a formal August 7 email query which I had sent to him and the Chief Curator. Dr Greenland had been on leave, why the Chief Curator did not respond is unknown. In his email, Dr Greenland stated that the Aaron Matalon Award has now been moved to the Kingston Biennial, which appears to have been an eleventh hour decision. How this will tally with the fact that the Kingston Biennial will be a curated exhibition is not clear, but perhaps that too is an implied acknowledgement that the Summer Exhibition is not up to standard.
The Dawn Scott Memorial Award was granted jointly to Judith Salmon and Shoshanna Weinberger and wast the subject of two press releases, including earlier-cited one and, on July 30, one about the 2019 awardees. Mr Gomez also gave a public lecture on July 30.
[Correction on the interpretation of Nadine Hall’s work and Coda added on August 23, 2019; update on the Aaron Matalon Award added on August 27]