Fifty-six-year-old British artist Hurvin Anderson is finally being recognised as a phenomenal talent, with a major retrospective at The Arts Club in Chicago that runs until mid-August; later this year he will feature prominently in A Brighter Sun: Caribbean British Art 50s to Now, a landmark Tate Britain exhibition featuring over 40 artists.
The Tate show will go some way towards demonstrating and cementing Anderson’s position as a bridge between pioneering Afro Caribbean artists such as Frank Bowling (b.1934) and Lubaina Himid (b.1954) and emerging voices such as Lynette Yiadom Boakye (b.1977).
The show is timely as it feels like an upgrade and reinterpretation of a Hayward exhibition from over 30 years ago, The Other Story: Asian, African and Caribbean Artists in Post-War Britain. Anderson saw this on tour in Wolverhampton in 1989 and says it was pivotal in showing him that art could be a vehicle for exploring personal and political diaspora. The exhibition was near his birthplace, Birmingham, where he grew up in a working-class family, the youngest of eight and the only child not to be born in Jamaica. His parents were part of the Windrush generation.
Sonia Boyce’s flat, Pop Art-style painting of herself with her mother – Big Women’s Talk – was part of that show and Anderson credits it as a turning point, one that opened up the possibility of creating normalised representations of what were, for him, the necessarily political subjects of Black family life in Britain. It informed his own early painting Beaver Lake – of a young Anderson accompanied by his father. In fact, Boyce is a contemporary, only three years older than Anderson, but he didn’t go to art school – Wimbledon – until he was 30, going on to do an MFA at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in 1998 at the age of 35.
On his first day at Wimbledon, Anderson was told “art school isn’t therapy” and that painting must be kept free of politics. Today he feels the art world is more open to expressions of Black lived experience, but in some ways the pendulum has swung the other way, so that Black artists can feel “the burden of representation” in their choice of subjects.
The hugely successful artist Kerry James Marshall, whose paintings now populate major museums, is a decade older than Anderson (also born in Birmingham, but the one across the pond in Alabama) and has been depicting African Americans on his canvasses since the 1980s because, in his words, “when you go to an art museum, the thing you’re least likely to encounter is a picture of a Black person”.
Kerry James Marshall, “Past Times”, 1997
Whereas Marshall’s paintings seem idealised, portraying Black figures at ease in everyday places where they might not feel welcome in real life, Anderson’s subjects feel more ambiguous. Working directly from photographs, he shows urban and suburban environments – both in the UK and Jamaica – where architectural elements and vegetation compete in characteristically abstracted form. These are human spaces, although actual figures have made less of an appearance in recent years. The later, figureless landscapes suggest the difficulty of “belonging” to a space when you have ties to two different countries, as Anderson does. Grace Jones is the only new work to include a figure. She looks directly at us: emphasising the directness of the single perspective in a painting where there’s no depth and therefore no invitation for the viewer to grasp or inhabit the same space the figure does. We are left like the photographer of the source image – Anderson – on the outside, forever looking in and seduced by its beauty. He has said this outside perspective, also influenced by Claude and Poussin, is as if he’s “on a stage and watching”.
In his recent series for the Chicago exhibition, Anderson used photos taken from a visit to Jamaica in 2017 as his starting point. There’s a recurring motif of a section of wall from a semi-derelict building overtaken by foliage, hinting perhaps at the conflict between the rapid urban development of Jamaica brought on by tourism, and Nature reclaiming it. Anderson takes the title for this exhibition Anywhere but Nowhere from a reggae song by K.C. White that is suggestive of post-colonial dystopia and dislocation; the anxiety of not belonging. The works explore Anderson’s personal struggle to resist a nostalgic depiction of Jamaica and to look instead at what’s there, which is what we see in the paintings: dereliction, new concrete buildings, Nature fighting back. He recently said of his struggle with Jamaica: “I don’t know it and I know it. I have this romantic vision of it and a lot of the painting is fighting that romance.”
Hurvin Anderson, “Flat Top”, 2008
These works build on his previous explorations of beautiful yet figureless landscapes of disquiet. Chicken Wire, from 2008, alludes to an era of social exclusion in Jamaica, when country clubs were for the British colonials, not locals. The chicken wire is a representational division, but also serves as an abstraction of social space – a play between foreground and background that somehow doesn’t feel laboured or didactic.
Chicago is exhibiting works from the Barber Shop series that formed part of Anderson’s portfolio in the 2017 Turner Prize, which was the first year in which entries by over-50s were accepted. It was also the year when Lubaina Himid became the first-ever Black female winner. The narrative behind the Barber Shop paintings is that Caribbean men were excluded from white male-dominated pubs and clubs when they first arrived in Britain, so barber shops became an important place of community, many of them makeshift and in people’s homes. Flat Top – one of the most striking – shows his distinctive geometric approach, in which monochromatic colour blocks gradually dissolve the real, lived space of the shop into a play of forms. As with Chicken Wire, the poignancy of the segregated social space becomes abstracted and flattened under his brush.
This is painting at its sharpest and most inventive. Anderson’s technique of “social abstraction” allows him to tease out hidden layers of otherwise day-to-day images of Jamaican landscapes, urban and social environments, producing paintings that now rightly take their place in the development of modern British art history. The flatness of modernism, the colourism of William Coldstream and the figures of Euan Uglow all swim in and out of these beautiful, profoundly accessible and inviting paintings.
Max Lunn is a journalist based in London