Blue Curry: Art, Image and Objecthood
Dr. Erica Moiah James
In an extended interview for the Caribbean Review of Books in 2011- Blue Curry seemingly becomes the “teflon artist.” He slips and slides not through the questions, but through the possible implications of his answers and how they may lead to assumptions of meaning and content too often associated with art emerging from or made in the context or in relation to the Caribbean. Curry is hyper aware of the repetitive nature and discursive limits of global Caribbean art criticism which, like the Royal Readers that governed colonial education for a time, seems to depend on learning by rote rather than a critical engagement of the work itself. Like many artists, he does not want his words to become eulogies for his work.
Anxieties persist because hard questions remain to be asked and answered in relation to contemporary Caribbean art. Many artists have tried to escape the limits of the present conversation, living as closeted Caribbeans around the world only to emerge as opportunities arise curatorially to present their work. Others choose to reference the visual, social and political history of the region as content using it coyly to challenge limited constructions of “Caribbeanness”.
Anchored in the specificity of the Caribbean, Curry’s work finds life within a global art historical discourse and practice. Though he often employs items immediately associated with the Caribbean and other tropical and or exoticized points of the globe (star fish, drums, shells, flotsam from grounded Haitian sloops, shark jaws, palm trees) as his practice has evolved, the sculptures have denied his audience the expected meaning of their parts. He has said that “direct symbolism doesn’t interest me. I’m really looking at image, and the way objects are used to create and reinforce and image.” (CRB) If we take the artist at his word, what might this mean? Perhaps that images of the Caribbean, images that have informed the Caribbean imaginary, seem to be inextricably tied to a kind of fantasy Curry is not interested in perpetuating. But at the same time, he is not willing to reject objects or items or experiences that have immense value to him.
Curry’s work challenges structures that undergird a symbolic engagement of art and the limits thereof. To be interested in image as an artist is not surprising, but for the artist, image as surface is only a starting point. In the 2004 work It Looks So Peaceful From Up Here (Fig 1) Curry uses a photographic collage process and animation style, to produce an aerial view of the city of Nassau. From this distance, the surface of the city is experienced. In this abstract reality all of the sounds, activities and life of the city are muted. In the silence the aestheticization of distance provides, the city becomes an image, a place of peace. The image mutes the reality of congestion, environmental challenges, social tension and growing violence present in the living city. The floating text becomes an irruption above the serenity of Nassau and Paradise Island, emphasizing the constructed nature of the image and one’s knowledge of the city gained through physical presence or other still other images of it.
In later works such as Like Taking Sand to the Beach, 2006 (Figure 2) and Repairwork, 2007 (Figure 3) image can be read epistemologically, narratively and historically as Curry’s works become more complexly drawn. Appropriating archeological and scientific processes of measuring, recording, mapping and excavating; economic processes of trade, marketing and shipping; fine art histories of public art, installation, performance and conceptual art; social and cultural shifts in meaning from colonial times to the post-colony, these works are rhizomatic. They encourage audiences through form to question ones basis of knowledge of “others” and history and how this reframes one’s understanding of a cultured self.
This challenge and Curry’s methods were and are rooted in modernism. However, as his work has evolved, it appears that he has increasingly become interested in the manner in which technology has troubled modern frameworks of intellectual, but also aesthetic experience. If we can’t answer the question ‘What is an American shirt?’ today then perhaps through this work there is a way to unmoor the seemingly fixed nature of what is understood as exotic or perhaps even Caribbean.
If one approaches New Providence from the west by sea, the island suddenly emerges low on the horizon. As one draws closer, the dark blur of land becomes more defined: strips of beach, people, clusters of casurinas, boats, the genteel houses of the exclusive Lyford Cay and Old Fort Bay communities come into view. Dominating the landscape is a tall palm tree, trunk straight and immobile; it’s fronds swaying in the breeze. (Figure 4) Curry found himself on a boat one afternoon drawn to this tree. As one might expect, the closer he came, the more details emerged and he soon realized that the tree was not a tree at all. Instead it was a massive aluminum telephonemast dressed with metal and plastic fronds, in order, one might imagine, to hide its technological otherness and have it blend naturally into the landscape. Not content with the knowledge of artifice, Curry drew closer and closer to the tree. We are all familiar with plastic plants and silk flowers. I have seen complete home gardens where owners impatient with the temporality of natural processes or having severe brown thumbs have in fact planted plastic flowers. A plastic and metal palm tree shouldn’t be surprising, and yet.... What (if anything) does the image of the palm provide beyond the appearance of uniform tropicality on the island and a muting of technological intervention on the landscape?
In the text Picturing Tropical Nature Nancy Leys Stepan notes how early images of the Caribbean and other regions lying between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn indicated that “tropical nature was an imaginative construct as much as it was an empirical description of the natural world.”[i] In these early paintings, drawings and prints, she observed that the plants rendered had a certain “botanical plausibility but (were) also subtly exaggerated in scale and shape, thereby creating an impression of a world of nature that is different from, or alien to, nature in the temperate world.”[ii] In Stepan’s view, knowledge of the Caribbean was therefore based on an impression, a culturally constructed image made under the guise of scientific truth.
These images established what she describes as a “visual grammar” which to this date “frames our expectations” or has become a visual short hand of the Caribbean.[iii] The Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) in concert with the homeowners associations of the exclusive communities around the telephone mast tree, wanted to maintain the visual grammar of the Caribbean landscape and all that is associated with. Artifice was needed to maintain what had been agreed upon as truth.
The silence Curry captured over the city of Nassau in 2004 arguably became embodied in the works produced after the artist’s encounter with the tree. Narrative, directed and detailed artistic intervention, densely layered meanings, ideological rhizomes, complex processes, focused engagement perhaps tied to anxieties of interwoven cultural histories fell away, without loss of content. Work with a stronger sculptural core emerged. Found objects shaped by technology were redeployed through processes that at times evoke, without exaggeration, medieval notions of the handmade, the Dadist embrace of accident, minimalist surfaces and paired down forms, sometimes all at once.
On his close investigation of the telephone pole tree, Curry discovered that the plastic fronds were falling, just like natural palm fronds. He gathered some of them and fashioned the sculpture Untitled, 2008 (Figure 5) for his thesis show at Goldsmith’s College (London) and began the video based piece Discovery of the Palm Tree Phone Mast, 2008 exhibited most recently in the Wrestling with the Image exhibition in 2010. (Figure 6) As a result of the distillation of Curry’s artistic process, culture remains present and essential in the work, but does not dominate the form as before. The object centers the audience’s experience, and meaning and content have become more open.
The American artist Dawoud Bey has spoken about his need to recognize moments when he has reached a fixed point or path to images when composing his work. It is in these moments that work becomes rote and it as this point where he must work to as he terms “unlock his eye”. It is a notion I have turned to in relation to the work of artists like Curry, whose art in some ways work to unlock the eyes of its audience to their expectations of the work.
In 2010 Curry participated in the Liverpool Biennial. To produce Untitled, 2010 (Figure 7) Curry acquired a functional cement mixer and had it professionally painted in shimmering aquamarine. Instead of filling the mixer with cement (the foundational material of modern building and one that requires a particularly fine grain of sand called aragonite, mined for years at Ocean Cay, Bahamas) Curry filled the mixer with gallons of sun tanning cream. In the Liverpool exhibition space Curry turned the mixer on, filling the space with the sound of an industrial site, the sweet smell of tanning cream - and a work of art. The elements of this kinetic sculpture have meaning in of themselves, but those singular meanings are foreclosed in the context of the larger aesthetic object, an object that is seductive in its surface and aromas yet perhaps equally confounding in its objecthood.
As one settles on an understanding of Curry’s sculptures, they often respond with a quiet “no” or “not quite”. Just as the works appear to reveal meaning, they recede from fixed comprehension. However, they are not opaque or esoteric, but elusive. What is the epistemological challenge Curry offers? Is he aestheticizing principles of Caribbean formation in a manner of a Guyodo, Charles Campbell or Marcel Pinas? Or are each of these artists, including Curry, reaching for a level of experience beyond current language or discourse?
The work of Guyodo, Campbell, Piñas and Curry often contain clearly distinguishable elements that manifest as wholes. In Curry’s work there is an eruption in the lives of objects appropriated, a partial death of the object, of its culturally defined identity as it reemerges as an element of a singular art object. The individual character and histories of the parts and the concurrent burdens of signification, shift from specific embodiment to a discreet one. This is particularly clear in Curry’s most recent body of work. Untitled, 2012 (Figure 8) consists of a stand and footstool both acquired during the course of Curry’s never ending search for materials, wood taken from a Haitian sloop that had run aground in the Bahamas after a human smuggling run, and a coconut, which could have been acquired anywhere, but in this case perhaps Selfridges by way of Malaysia. While these elements might be interesting on their own, their stories fall away as the physicality of the object, its simultaneous sense of balance and fragility come to dominate ones experience with it as a sculptural form.
Robert Morris’s notions of gestalt as cited by Michael Fried in the essay Art and Objecthood (1967) come to mind in relation to Curry’s recent work. Morris proposes that the ”Characteristic of a gestalt is that once it is established all the information about it, qua gestalt is exhausted. One is then both free of the shape and bound to it. Free or released because of the exhaustion of information about it, as shape, and bound to it because it remains constant and indivisible.” [iv]
Earlier in this essay Fried contends that in the work of Minimalist sculptors such as Morris and Donald Judd, shape becomes an important factor in comprehending the wholeness of the object- where there is an emphasis on repetition of a distilled volume or form. Judd had contended that “the big problem is that anything that is not absolutely plain begins to have parts in some way. The thing is to be able to work and do different things and yet not break up the wholeness that a piece has.”[v] For him it would appear that similarity of form, convention, fixity, sameness rids one of the perception of difference or culture. If this was in fact so, Fried proposes that “this would suggest that the shape is the object: …what secures the wholeness of the object is the singleness of the shape. It is I believe, this emphasis on shape that accounts for the impression, which numerous critics have mentioned, that Judd’s and Morris’s pieces are hollow.”[vi]
While I am not willing at this time to enter the decades long debate on Fried essay and wish to explore these ideas in relation to Curry’s work more extensively at a later time, I would argue that the gestalt of Curry’s work does away with the oppositionality present between Art and Objecthood (as presented by Fried), Minimalism and Modernism, Morris and Fried, and shape as object and the hollow object. Curry’s work rests at the conjunctive point of the “and” while securing its wholeness. It can be difficult work. As previously mentioned in interviews Curry is as evasive when the sculptures are broken down into elements that suggest something intrinsically “Caribbean” or “symbolic” or “modern” or “minimalist” or “literalist”, without a consideration of the place of dissonance temporally and formally between these locators and the work itself. He is minimalist, but not; constructivist, but not; modern- but not. Uses found objects, but more often than not manipulates them further. He creates assemblages, but refers to them as sculpture and flirts with elements of theatre without the work degenerating as an art object. He has arrested their previous narrative line to begin new ones out of the entanglement from which a new object emerges.
How might contemporary art criticism find language to engage the wholeness of these forms? One sees the necessity of this again and again in Untitled 2012 (Conga, Mirror, Plates, Sand)(Figure 9) and Untitled, 2012(Table, tinted perspex, fan cover, sea urchin) (Figure 10) where Curry gives and takes with a nod to how technology and global circuits of trade continually blur symbolic values associated with the exotic.
Several weeks ago while I was sitting on a bus waiting to travel from Masvingo to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, a woman came by selling bananas. It struck me that her banana tray could have been the very same fan cover used by Curry in this work (Figure 10). It was in fact the same brand and style. The same section was being redeployed, though at the same time I recognized that it was not the same. It struck me anew how mechanical reproduction and global trade has made materiality less precious and impacted the value of originality- ideas central to conceptions of modern art. It forces one to tussle with ideas and notions that we once thought fixed, immovable- and essential for meaning. I couldn’t help but think that maybe Curry had seen the future.
After a room (and a few years) of untitled work, it is somewhat of a surprise to encounter the work Untitled, The Devil’s Triangles, 2012 (Figure 11) in Curry’ oeuvre. Consisting of eight triangular shaped screens of various sizes, trimmed in black, pink and the natural pewter color of the frame, the pieces are arranged in groups of threes and two and lean gently against the walls. The screen material used is typical of the American South and The Bahamas where the battle with mosquitos is an ongoing one and the screen door is the first line of defense. The shape and the work’s title reference the long tale of the Bermuda Triangle and the doom and gloom associated with it even today. However, on extended examination, these sculptures appear to be formally divested from that narrative. Even as it is referenced, the objects offer a cool distance to its arguably red herring of a title. Curry recalls discussing the use of the screens in The Bahamas with a person unfamiliar with the Caribbean who remarked, “but how do you see through them?” Curry realized that Bahamians had become so used to seeing through these screens that it was not an issue. In fact they did not see the screens at all. But unfamiliarity, distance and an expectation of sight had made this person question.
The manner in which Curry arranges the triangles in the space, reveals the material as simultaneously tactile and transparent. Ones expectation of the density and invisibility of the object and by extension, Caribbean waters and the Caribbean itself are all disavowed by the form. Maybe the fact of this and what it then requires is what Curry’s audience is left to consider through his work. But then again, considering the artist, maybe not.
Dr. Erica Moiah James is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Miami. Before arriving in Miami she taught at Yale University and was the founding Director and Chief Curator of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB).
[i] Nancy Leys Stepan. Picturing Tropical Nature. (Reaktion Books: London, 2001) p. 11.
[iv] Robert Morris quoted in Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” Art and Objecthood Essays and Reviews (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998) 165.
[v] Donald Judd quoted in Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” Art and Objecthood Essays and Reviews (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998)150-1.
[vi] Fried, 151.