Hurvin Anderson and Peter Doig on the Meaning of the Caribbean
As 'Life Between Islands' opens at Tate Britain, two painters reflect on the importance of place to their work
As 'Life Between Islands' opens at Tate Britain, two painters reflect on the importance of place to their work
Amy Sherlock What does ‘the Caribbean’ mean to you?
Hurvin Anderson In a strange way, for me, the Caribbean is a place I don’t know, but have learned about through conversation. I haven’t lived there, but I know it because of family stories. That’s maybe the reason I’m interested in the Caribbean landscape – because I grew up hearing so much about it.
My first experience of Jamaica was in 1979, when I was 14 years old. I come from a family of eight, but I was the only one to be born in the UK. There was a difference between British-born diasporic Jamaicans and Jamaicans, and it always intrigued me what that thing was. Our home felt like a Caribbean home but then, when I stepped out the front door, I was in Britain. With the paintings, I’m trying to get at where these things overlap or clash. Where they meet or don’t meet.
Peter Doig How ‘Caribbean’ do you think your work was, Hurvin, before you went back as a grown man, in 2002, to do a residency in Trinidad?
HA I think the paintings I made pre-2002 were me looking at British life through Caribbean eyes. I was using Handsworth Park, near where I grew up in Birmingham, as a way to engage with the British landscape. It was a place I knew, a place I understood.
AS In your early painting Ball Watching , the setting is very ambiguous. It’s hard to know exactly what we are looking at, how far the landscape extends beyond the frame. That work was based on a photograph you took of people standing at the edge of a pond in the park, looking at a football that had gone into the water. But the painting itself evokes a space that’s much bigger and much less defined. The pond becomes an ocean.
HA That painting spoke about the Caribbean in an obtuse way. The idea was that, on the horizon, there was the intimation of the figures looking back at us. It was almost a mirror, with this sense of back and forth.
PD I remember seeing that painting when you were a student at the Royal College of Art and thinking that the body language of the figures was distinctly non-British. Particularly one guy standing in the centre with his knee bent. To me, that work is less about the landscape than about the people, this grouping and this moment of watching, waiting.
AS In both of your work, figures come and go. Do you consider yourselves landscape painters?
PD When I meet people and they ask me what I do, I tell them I make paintings with figures, sometimes in a landscape. I think the figure is important; even if it’s not that apparent, there is the idea of a presence, of something human.
HA It’s interesting you answer it like that. For me, figuration is quite a broad term. I guess I want to be ambiguous. I still think a lot about abstraction.
PD My relationship to the Caribbean is different to Hurvin’s because I lived in Trinidad as a young child. I moved there when I was two and I was there until I was seven and a half. My father was interested in oil painting. He’d go and see a lot of the local exhibitions and, on his somewhat meagre salary, managed to buy some works. The house where I grew up in Canada, later, was filled with paintings by Trinidadian artists. When I returned to Trinidad 33 years later, those names were still around. People like Carlisle Chang, Willi Chen, Leo Glasgow and the Holder brothers, Geoffrey and Boscoe: everyone connected to Trinidad would know who those artists are. Or Sybil Atteck, who studied under Max Beckmann in St Louis. She came back to Trinidad and had a great influence on the local scene.
AS Hurvin, what paintings were you looking at growing up?
HA The first name I always come up with is Michael Andrews. I took any opportunity to see his work. When I was younger, I just drew; I didn’t really look at anything. As I got older and started to study and think about painting, I was looking at lots of British artists. Stanley Spencer was an odd figure I found interesting. There was a [Francis] Bacon in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, plus a lot of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites.
When I first went to Wimbledon College of Arts, I was obsessed with the Bloomsbury Group – artists like Duncan Grant – but then I steered away from them. At that time, I wasn’t so interested in [John] Constable; it was only later that I started to understand and appreciate what he was doing.
PD I never really lived in a city until I was 14, when my family moved to Toronto. I remember some of the paintings in the museum there, but the way Hurvin describes seeing iconic works by great artists, I didn’t really have that experience. My family lived in lots of different places and I think, when you’re moving around all the time, there is always this reflection that goes on, remembering places or glimpses of them.
In my own way, I’m doing something similar to Hurvin when he talks about trying to come to terms with two different worlds in his work. In my earlier paintings, that world is a particular version of Canada. Then, when I returned to Trinidad, it became about trying to address my memories of the place – and not just my own memories, but also the images I knew of it from my father’s photographs. My father was a keen amateur photographer and he had slide carousels full of pictures. I would just sit and watch them on a projector, these images of this past, on loop.
AS Are the places you paint ‘real’ or do they exist in a different space? How legible do you want where they’re set to be?
HA In my new series, I’m making paintings of hotels in Jamaica. I’m interested in the idea that they represent a kind of utopia. When I was making these works, I kept thinking about religion: Adam and Eve with the tree of good and evil in the Bible. I also see these hotels as a specifically Caribbean form of palace.
The idea of perfection and the image of Jamaica as a perfect environment was going through my head. I wanted to question the notion of utopia, somehow. The Caribbean community in Britain came here filled with hope, looking for a dream that was somehow never realized. And the place they left is a kind of paradise. I’m trying to challenge my own ideas: do I think that this is a perfect place? In the paintings, I’m trying to see the Caribbean in a more rounded and open way.
PD British people might imagine an island like Trinidad is paradise but, for those who live there, it’s a very ordinary and hard place as well. I think the dream still is to leave for a lot of people.
AS Do you ever feel wary of perpetuating a certain image of the Caribbean landscape: idealizing it or exoticizing it in some way?
PD For me, that was the challenge right from the start: do you go there? Both of us, from different positions, are pushing against that notion, that fantasy. In my case, I hope my work is asking the question: what am I doing in Trinidad?
AS Do you mean as a white man?
PD As an outsider, generally. Some of my paintings are asking that much more directly than others.
HA Through that tenuous thing of family and the mark this place has left on me, I do feel like I have a connection to the Caribbean. At the same time, I’m trying to step back and be as objective as possible. I guess if you’re in this territory, you’re bound to pull a wrong move at some point.
PD Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to make a pretty painting every once in a while! I was looking at your new book the other day and I was interested in the photographs you took on your first trip to Trinidad in 2002. Were you documenting things with the intention of making paintings, or did that come after the fact?
HA When I saw the bar, the one with the security grilles, I was really struck by it. I thought: there’s something here. When I got back to the UK, it was the photograph of the Imperial building that I started to work with. There was a kind of ambiguity about it: even though it was run down, there was some hope. It seemed to occupy two spaces: progress and decline.
AS You both paint from photos: sometimes your own, sometimes found images. Is there something about working from a photograph that allows for ambiguity, by putting an additional space between the place you’re depicting and the painting itself?
PD When I moved back to Trinidad in 2002, I was very nervous about being confronted by the place and the question of what would be legitimate for me to paint. I ended up taking photographs with me that I found in a second-hand shop near Old Street in London. They were old Indian postcards of scenes – landscapes and figures – that could easily have been Trinidad. They reminded me of what I felt Trinidad was like without having been taken there. I felt it was legitimate, in a sense, to use these as my source.
HA When I went to Jamaica in 2006, I took so many photos that my brother-in-law said: ‘It looks like you want to take Jamaica back with you.’ There was a little bit of that: trying to get to know the place, trying to bring back a feeling. I wanted to understand the light, the architecture, the signs: how people do things there.
AS Do you need to sit with that visual information for a while before you compose it into a painting?
HA It’s a movement of displacement. Photographs are one step removed. Peter, I do remember some of your teaching from the Royal College of Art. I remember you talking about how the photograph is not the real world. If you paint from life, you’re fighting with the thing in front of you, whereas you can manipulate a photograph.
AS Both of you have talked about displacement. Do you think that is generative for your work? Does the awkwardness of not feeling totally at home allow you to get at something deeper about a place or subject?
PD As an artist, you are always seeking subjects. You have a different experience of the world to others who aren’t looking in the same way. I remember something that happened in Trinidad: I hadn’t been back there for very long and I was working towards an exhibition in Munich. I had a number of paintings on the go and, through a friend of a friend, I invited some students from the art department of the local university to come to my studio. At that point in time, not many people had seen the work I was making, because I was living quite a private life.
These kids all commented on the things that I was painting, which they found quite odd. One work, Lapeyrouse Wall , depicts a man walking down the road past a fire hydrant, and they were all talking about the hydrant and asking why I had included it. To me, the fire hydrants are really, really apparent in Trinidad, but maybe that’s because they remind me of the fire hydrants in Edward Hopper paintings.
I knew Hurvin’s paintings from the Royal College of Art and I was fascinated to see what things he’d pick up on when he came back from Trinidad. Some of the stuff that made its way into the paintings was very local to the residency studios, like the bar with burglar proofing in Welcome: Carib . A lot of the artists who visited Trinidad were fascinated by the burglar proofing. It’s one of the most shocking things: it’s so apparent, but some of it is also quite decorative and beautiful.
HA That was partly me fighting against my instincts to want to create a paradise. I have to say, of all the paintings I’ve ever done, Welcome: Carib is one of the few that felt claustrophobic to make – like I was enclosing myself or cutting up the canvas in some way. I had an almost physical reaction to it.
PD It’s got a really nice pop element to it, that painting, because of the posters on the wall behind the bar. I remember them. I think some are probably still there.
AS You mentioned Hopper, Peter, and I feel quite strongly in both of your work a sense of emptiness, of loneliness. In Hopper, that is very much an urban phenomenon: transplanting it to a visually lush environment, as you both do, cuts against the seduction of tropical islands that you’ve been talking about.
HA There’s a funny relationship between me and Peter in that, every time someone writes about me, they mention Peter. I’m struggling to work out why. Is there something in my work that appears in his, too? Maybe it’s this Hopper moment.
PD I see Hopper in a lot of your paintings, going back to Ball Watching and the series you made of barber shops [2007–09]. I would also say someone like Sigmar Polke has been an influence – in terms of both the spirit of your work and your use of material. But people always pick up on the obvious correlations, like the photograph or the figuration.
AS For me – looking from the outside – it’s about a certain atmosphere. There’s a melancholic tinge to both of your work. It has to do with the fact that your figures are often solitary, but it’s also an effect of the haziness of place I mentioned earlier. It’s like the sadness of waking up from a dream, where an image that was so vivid is on the cusp of slipping away from you.
Hurvin Anderson solo exhibition, ‘Reverb’, is on view at Thomas Dane Gallery, London, UK, until 4 December. Work by Anderson and Doig is included in ‘Life Between Islands’ at Tate Britain, London, until 3 April 2022 and ‘Mixing It Up: Painting Today’ at Hayward Gallery, London, until 12 December
This article first appeared in frieze issue 223 with the headline ‘I’m trying to get at where these two things – the Caribbean and Britain – overlap or clash. Where they meet or don’t meet.’
Main image: Hurvin Anderson, Ball Watching, 1997, oil on canvas, 1.2 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: © Hurvin Anderson and Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples; photograph: Richard Ivey