I have known Alison Chapman-Andrews for nearly forty years and during that time l have written about her work in catalogue essays and her entry in Art in Barbados: What kind of Mirror Image? In addition, we have exhibited together, Collage and Coincidence, 2002 and on most Wednesday afternoons we talk art and look at her most recent work. It has therefore been surprisingly difficult to write again without repeating what has already been written.
It is because of this familiarity and closenessthat l decided to explore different interpretations and philosophical viewpoints to examine the work in this exhibition.
Alison Chapman-Andrews has been investigating the Barbadian landscape for almost fifty years, through sketchbooks, drawings and paintings. Her library of sketchbooks represents an archive to the evolution of each work. And it is in these sketchbooks that we realise that drawing is the key to all her work. “.. it is easy for me to draw, it’s always been ahead of my paintings … my training was to notice things – to draw and to draw precisely.” Each book shows the initial drawing or part of a photograph which is cut and rearranged or expanded until the final composition is reached. Alongside these drawings are colour tryouts, experiments in a variety of media and written notes to herself.
Chapman-Andrews is the consummate artist. She works everyday: drawing or painting. They take a little longer than they used to but she remains astoundingly productive. Her oeuvre is full of experimentation and artist set challenges, such as the portraits and figure paintings. But it is her landscapes which have become synonymous with Barbados. I have even heard people refer to a particular view as a Chapman-Andrews: despite the fact that most of her paintings are made up from multiple viewpoints and as such are not views.
The landscapes of Chapman-Andrews are not the man-made landscapes of sugar cane fields which we see every day but a Barbadian hinterland: the hidden crevices and gulliesscattered across this island which escaped sugar cultivation. It is these almost primordial spaces which inspire Chapman-Andrews to create her mystical landscapes. When looking at her work I am reminded of works by the English artists William Blake (1757- 1827) and Samuel Palmer (1805-1881).
It was Blake who said, “Not everybody sees alike: a Tree that moves some to Tears of Joy to other Eyes is just a green thing in the way.”
Revolving by Moonshine
Chapman-Andrews sees her Barbadian landscape like no one else and her best paintings convey the same emotive power we experience standing before a wondrous vista: time stands still, we feel different, we are in a state of joy. In a similar way, her paintings demand we spend time in front of them looking so they can do their work.
“For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that l can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that l cannot know of myself.”
This is why people return to museums and galleries and stand before the work they have seen many times before. They bring a new experience to the dialogue and discover something in the process. It is therefore a delight for those of us familiar with the Mark Hunte Collection to be able to see these works again and on this occasion, in the context of other significant works.
When Alison Chapman-Andrews first mentioned her idea for this exhibition l started to imagine how the works would relate to each other in the gallery. How would each painting interact with another and what connections would be made? A question which can only be hypothetical at this stage but one which deserves further exploration. At this point it is a question only Chapman-Andrews could answer. An artist creates against their own back catalogue of works and understands how they relate to each other.
But, however they relate and communicate, it will be through the uniqueness of the viewer.
I recently read about new research being undertaken at a forest in Hümmel, Germany and it prompted me to think of the interconnectedness of these paintings. The researchers revealed “… a vast underground network, called a mycorrhiza, in which fungi connect trees of different species by passing chemical and electrical signals among the trees’ roots. It was an arboreal Internet—christened the “wood wide web.” Trees could actually communicate by exchanging carbon through their roots. This network allows trees to communicate with each other, sharing food and warnings of danger.”
Cane or Grass, Claybury
What can these paintings collectively offer the viewer? Even though these works were not commissioned for a particular space, like the Rothko Chapel in Texas, I believe collectively they will offer a “direct means to aesthetic ecstasy.” Jules Evans recalls a period when all the arts were seen as “techniques that could connect one’s spirit to the spirits of other humans (dead or alive), to nature and the gods.”
Hers are not simply, what the eye can see landscapes. They are charged through a combination of rich pattern, colour and texture to take us on a journey. They aspire “… to transgress the individual.”
In an exhibition of this scope it is impossible to write meaningfully about all the works on show or even a select few. l have instead, attempted to offer a way of looking and interpreting through citing a few favourite paintings.
There is, as in nature herself, an undercurrent eroticism in such works as Blackman’s Gully, 1980. The final composition was constructed from multiple drawings from different viewpoints and directs the viewer to look deep into the rich patterning of the gully. It is a quilt of textures framed by erect palms with the landscape falling away on either side.
“What sets off those paintings … is their intensely sensuous transformation of observation into concentrates of experience. In “… Blackman’s Gully and numerous others, the motif is translated into an ecstatic, resounding ‘now’, echoing into eternity.”
The composition of the palms on the left are reimagined in two other paintings; The Kite, 1980 and the Last Day in the Country, 1987.
“One compelling feature of these paintings is the importance given to the top and bottom of the canvas. Much landscape painting … persuades the viewer to scan the picture from left to right, or from side to side. Alison’s work, remarkably, persuades the viewer to ignore the sides and view the work from top to bottom. This has the effect of placing the viewer within a very specific pivotal space despite the fact that “ground” or “sky” are seldom explicitly shown.”
During this period Chapman-Andrews would often drive around the island searching for views which could be incorporated into paintings. As a result, “some of these paintings have whole books of sketches.”The Kite alsoshares the same high horizon line with the Last Day in the Country but stylistically they couldn’t be further apart. The Kite is one of her most abstract and lyrical paintings. Chapman-Andrews created an accurate ceramic relief of the final composition to observe the tonal values. For her “… colour is not the most important thing …”
The vertical Royal Palms emerge from an undulating landscape punctuated with feminine biological plant forms. To the right the free-spirited kite is caught in the menacing tentacles of the Maypole (Agave).
Yet she punctuates the Last Day in the Country with a deft Vermilion line on the descending frond on the left, on a banana leaf edge between the two palms and in a graceful horizontal curve to the right in the middle distance. It is these touches which the painting cannot survive without – they make it work. She told me her use of red was inspired by the 1930s paintings of Kandinsky.
« One drives up a hill and suddenly the land falls away and a vista opens up. If one can also see the sea that is a magic moment indeed. For me one of those places is Mount Hillaby.”
From Mount Hillaby
From Mount Hillaby, 1983 is a view from the highest point in the island. There are no Royal Palms dominating the composition. Instead we look down on a patchwork of chattel houses dwarfed by the enclosing landscape. The painting is a rarity in the artists’ oeuvre in that it carries a social/political commentary.
“The scene is a typical realisationof the plight of the poor in the Caribbean rural scene. Their chattel houses are precariouslybalanced on terraces of ‘rab’ land that no one else wants. The artist wanted ‘to express a social thing as well … it disturbs me when l see other artists painting this view … how little they have seen.’”
Surrealism has been a thread which has run through much of her work, sometimes obviously as in Birthday of Plants, 1984 but more often as an underlying current of incorporating dream and fantasy into the everyday experience, whether it be through the eroticisation of nature or in works such as Revolving by Moonshine, 1994. Here the sumptuous purples which dominate the composition were inspired in the kitchen, where the artist was peeling an aubergine. It is a painting where we experience “… the life of the spirit as seen through the senses.” Above the familiar high horizon line are two moons transitioned from dark to light or eclipse to full, separated by vertical trunks.
It is “… a richly textured work which suggests the passage of time. The right-hand section of the composition is dominated with strong vertical palms which are constructed by overlaying paint. To their left, the fruit of the palm, Veitchiamerrilla, are transformed into a vibrating pulsing sphere of cosmic energy. It occupies a space directly below the darkened celestial body as though it has descended to bring magic to the gully below.”
Sealy Hall Evening
Chapman-Andrews has also produced a number of paintings which are intimate in scale and observation. The earliest in this exhibition are Sealy Hall Evening, and Christmas Candles both 1978, together with Real Ripe Mango, 1982. In all these works the human presence is not far away. Sealy Hall Evening conveys a joy of pattern making and paint application. There is a sureness in the ability of her mark-making to suggest a variety of vegetation. The composition is full of movement and the passage of time; the white plumes of the wild canes, birds in full flight migrating to their evening retreat, creating an X in the sky and the hind quarters of a cow disappearing around the corner. To the right, across the road, the white walls of the enclosure for a standpipe – another reference to the human presence in a lush landscape.
The Cosmic energy we experience in Revolving by Moonshine reemerges, more figuratively, in later works such as Red Coconut, 2012 and Cane or Grass, Clayburby Plantation,2014. In both there is a potent female/male duality.
In Red Coconut, 2012, the patterned trunk of a coconut tree erupts diagonally against colour fields of yellows and reds of such intensity we can only speculate whether this is an end or beginning. To the left the lines of an x-rayed coconut leaf fall against a blinding light while a green sun/moon hovers within the narrow band marking a horizon. Its yellow outline buffering it against a dark red. To the right the green coconut leaves vibrate against its opposite colour. Like so many of her works, the introduction of small touches of a complementary colour make it whole – we cannot imagine the work without it.
Last Day in the Country
In Cane or Grass, Claybury Plantation,2014 we see a return to the emblematic Royal Palms we have seen before; but now we are focused on the spherical flower/seed mass repeated across the canvas, creating three arched windows onto a setting sun, burning across the horizon. Hadchity sees “… a furnace of cosmic destruction and creation.” Below we see a bleached-out view of Claybury. The colour is reminiscent of YellowHillaby and Burnt Hillaby both of 2013. Compositionally, however, Cane or Grass, Claybury Plantationis very different. Here we are looking down and straight ahead. In the left-hand window Chapman-Andrews underlines the spheres with an undulating line of palms, suggested with the barest marks together with a faint red line, which appears in the last window as the familiar descending Vermilion accent we see in The Last Day in the Country. But this is not a graceful curve – it is a line spent of all energy.
In such works, we observe Chapman-Andrews reassemble familiar imagery from sketchbooks and paintings to produce a dialogue between works spanning several decades. When an artist is in an act of creation it feels as though you are jumping off a cliff without a parachute and then everything falls into place – as it so often does in these works.
According to David Hockney, each painting is “an account of looking at something … [but each has] … a limit to what it can see” and in so doing the viewer is teased with the promise of other views, hopefully in other paintings. It is this concept which has sustained Chapman-Andrews interrogation of the Barbadian landscape for almost fifty years.
Nick Whittle interview with Alison Chapman-Andrews, 1993.
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