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NGJ's 2012 National Biennale — Part 1

Tamara Scott-Williams

Sunday, December 30, 2012    

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AS I explained to William, my guest at the National Gallery of Jamaica's (NGJ's) 2012 National Biennale, a Biennale (Italian for "every other year") is an exhibition of contemporary art (stemming from the use of the phrase for the Venice Biennale first held in 1895).

The NGJ show this year combines 126 works from 87 juried and invited, emerging and established artists of every fine/visual art discipline. There would be something for everyone: some enchanting and some not, but all very indicative of our artists' state of mind.

The sheer scale of the works is impressive, clearly not for the average bourgeois collector or speculator. Our artists are looking for bigger audiences: the public, the museum acquisitions committee, the corporate or private patron with huge rooms to house these works.

Duane Allen's ceiling-hung jagged expanse of cold steel, wire and nylon Entrapment; Laura Facey's De Hangin of Phibbah and her Private Parts and De Bone Yard; Olivia McGilchrist's video installation Ernestine and Me; and Charles Campbell's screen-printed cards fastened together with metal clips to form Branch which climbed up the stairwell and rolled onto the gallery floor, all carved out large spaces in the gallery and required that you insert yourself into the work by walking through or into or all the way around in order to experience them from every angle.

Ebony Patterson was a big hit with William. We crouched down low to enter her multi-media installation The Observation (Bush Cockerel) - A Fictitious History; and, oblivious to the 14-minute video therein, we spent a long time on the floor just gazing peacefully up at her psychedelic floral mobiles.

But all the show was not a fairy tale, for on one occasion we rushed to cover William's eyes, during a bloody frame of Storm Saulter's Tied, and shielded them again from Omari S Ra's Space Negotiator: The Blues Kite. More than the subjects' nakedness, it was the startling way their perversity was pasted to the kite, daring in its proximity to images of schoolchildren. We had to cover William's ears too, while the work sparked an earnest debate on sexual expression vs pornography between his mother and me.

No prude am I, but if intimacy should be on public display, then Leasho Johnson, who clearly has more fun than most with the naughty stuff, has the right approach (especially those works which made an earlier appearance at the recent Mutual Gallery's Under 40 show).

Other sculptural pieces emerged too from the abundance of works: Shediene Fletcher's display of extreme taxidermy in Beneath the Skin, with its goat skin and cow horn materials providing an uncannily formal encounter with nature; the patient handcrafting of precious and natural elements evident in Jasmine Thomas-Girvan's Dreaming Backwards and again in Occupy and Judith Salmon's Pockets of Memory, which placed the traditional crochet craft within the context of fine art (and sorely tempted us to pull one of the notes from its many pouches).

Under threat of confiscation of all electronic equipment, my teenaged daughter and her crew finally arrived at the Gallery just in time to haul William and his stroller up the two flights of stairs to the permanent galleries and tribute exhibitions to the Musgrave Awardees.

They halted, and held William aloft for several minutes, while they examined in detail Amy Laskin's Vine had a Dream taking pride of place at the top of the stairs. They were hooked, and soon after left us to speed through the main exhibition.

Ignoring my near shouts of: "Don't rush! Take your time!" (it is okay to talk in a gallery, I told William, it's only when there are others present whom you might disturb and thus confine your comments to a sacred whisper) they quickly returned after having Instagrammed, Facebooked and Instant Messaged many of the works — a gallery no-no, but I overlooked their youthful exuberance in favour of them providing much-needed publicity for the show. Tell the world that this is a must-see, they said. Indeed, the National Gallery is open today, Sunday, December 30, with free tours, children's activities and a live performance.

Capturing all our imaginations were the photographic works, which forced the technical process far beyond its representational use and produced arresting works. Michael Chambers' stunning photograph of Rita (Marley) conjured up Franceso Scavullo's black and white portraits, and Marvin Bartley's digital remix of The Birth of Venus pushed the envelope of divine love in a way that Sandro Botticelli may never have intended.

It was the photographic works, too, which broached difficult conversations by exposing sad realities begging for intervention and healing. Marlon James's Gisele forces us to acknowledge that "cutting" is not just a "foreign" phenomenon but has taken root right here in Jamaica, and Stefan Clarke's triptych Life; Faith/Love/Death reaffirmed our efforts to spare our children the agonies of jealousy, shame and insecurity. Life is a gift, as Donette Zacca's On the Sixth Day - Man reminds us, and in time, with age and experience our young artists will discover that too.

And just when we thought in this, the digital age, that the practice of applying paint to canvas had become obsolescent, there appeared the familiar brush strokes in a sensuous nude by Barrington Watson and in Alexander Cooper's vibrant Sunday School. Carol Crichton ditched the brush in favour of rolling her painted nude Body of Work on canvas, and Christopher Lawrence's dramatic diptych, The Separation, all honoured the simple pleasure of viewing a traditional work of art.

While all the artists deserve mention (as do the curatorial team and the various exhibition and jury committees) it is impossible to do so in one column, further to which the exhibition requires yet another visit, and I encourage everyone to do the same.

While there is a juried component to this exhibition — the artist who will take home the Aaron Matalon Award for making the most outstanding contribution to the biennial will be announced today — the real winners in the year's biennale are the audiences: the very young who can find much to captivate them and the not so young who will come away from this exhibition confident that Jamaican art at 50 is readying itself for the world stage.

scowicomm@gmail.com

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