‘Chicken Wire (2008), a painting from the Country Club series, could be read as a vivid study in red and green of an innocuous subject – a well-tended tennis court, surrounded by a garden and a chicken wire fence. It is, however, more complicated than that: membership of Jamaican country clubs in the colonial era was, of course, not for locals: the faint white grid of the fence acts as a very real reminder of the racial and social segregation that was, until very recently, so deeply part of Jamaica’s laws and which must have caused inestimable damage to the national psyche, the residue of which is still felt’
Rendered on a sprawling, immersive scale, Country Club: Chicken Wire is a brooding mise-en-scène that stands among Hurvin Anderson’s most iconic works. A masterful essay in the dialogue between figuration and abstraction, it depicts a deserted tennis court bathed in tropical heat, glimpsed through a chicken wire fence. Executed in 2008, it is one of the largest and most fully-worked renditions of this subject, which has defined nearly a decade of his oeuvre. Pigment melts down the length of the canvas in quivering rivulets, marshalled by the geometric rigor of the court. Nature swamps the scene, coalescing in murky green washes and delicate textural layers. Umbrellas and sun-loungers flank the bright red field: eerie signifiers of long-lost human presence. Bisected by a single vertical pole, the hexagonal grid confounds all sense of perspective, throwing foreground and background into oscillating chaos. The work’s dizzying optical and psychological ambiguities act as ciphers for Anderson’s own sense of cultural displacement. Born in Birmingham, UK to Jamaican émigré parents, the artist spent his youth dreaming of the Caribbean shores he had never known. In 2002, following in the footsteps of his former teacher Peter Doig, he undertook an artist’s residency on Trinidad, where he took the photographs that inspired the present work and its companions. The barriers and grilles that surrounded the island’s sites of leisure caused him to reflect not only on the scars of colonial segregation and prohibition, but also on his own status as an outsider in his homeland. Multi-lingual influences collide in the depths of the present work: from geometric abstraction, Colour Field painting and Op Art, to the lost paradises of Paul Gauguin and Doig’s own filmic memory-spaces. A centrepiece of the artist’s 2013 solo exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, Country Club: Chicken Wire is both utopian and disquieting: a projection of an artist caught between worlds.
The work represents a moment of breakthrough within the Country Club series. In the earliest of these paintings, created between 2003 and 2005, the artist envisages the tennis court without its barrier, playing instead with the spatial dialogues inherent in the scene. The appearance of the wire lattice introduces not only a new degree of technical virtuosity, but also imbues the composition with a deeper historical resonance. Fragmenting the landscape into discrete hexagonal portions, the work extends the vocabulary of his Welcome series, in which grilles at café and bar windows are transformed into beguiling abstract patterns. Like an image viewed through a broken mirror, Anderson’s world is both familiar and deeply foreboding. Jennifer Higgie explains how ‘Chicken Wire (2008), a painting from the Country Club series, could be read as a vivid study in red and green of an innocuous subject – a well-tended tennis court, surrounded by a garden and a chicken wire fence. It is, however, more complicated than that: membership of Jamaican country clubs in the colonial era was, of course, not for locals: the faint white grid of the fence acts as a very real reminder of the racial and social segregation that was, until very recently, so deeply part of Jamaica’s laws and which must have caused inestimable damage to the national psyche, the residue of which is still felt’ (J. Higgie, ‘Another word for feeling’, in Hurvin Anderson: reporting back, exh. cat., Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 2013, p. 13). Throughout his career, Anderson has been drawn to the contradiction inherent in such barriers: their tessellating designs are visually appealing, yet their function is one of exclusion. For the artist, the condition of these gated worlds is ultimately akin to that of his own tropical reveries: bright and alluring, yet ultimately unattainable. The slippages, dualisms and ambiguities created by the chicken wire dramatize the sensation of looking at something – a memory, a daydream or simply a tennis court – from a distance.
Anderson’s fascination with physical and mental barriers is fundamentally rooted in his own conflicted identity: a status amplified during his time in Trinidad. ‘I had always felt a double-edged thing about who I was and where I came from’, the artist explains. ‘In Trinidad I could be all these things, I was the Englishman, but I was also the Jamaican. It was an interesting place to explore this no man’s land, you could kind of drift back and forwards between these identities. In a strange way everything was quite straightforward. On certain issues they saw me as Jamaican and on others as English. It was a real acknowledgement of that position, which was quite unusual’ (H. Anderson in conversation with M. Higgs, in Hurvin Anderson: Subtitles, exh. cat., Michael Werner, New York, 2011, unpaged). Anderson’s wide-ranging dialogue with art history may be understood in terms of this rootlessness. In certain lights, the present work quivers with overtones of Expressionist psycho-drama: an abandoned dystopia reminiscent of Edvard Munch. In others, however, all sense of ambience is subsumed by the complex geometric interplay of court, net and fence. Its heightened palette straddles the divide between Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism, whilst its collapse of traditional perspective brings to mind the retinal distortions of Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. Weaving together multiple narratives yet aligning itself with none, the work is a hybrid structure that – like Anderson’s own sense of self – sits in the gap between reality and imagination.