REVIEW ON THE EXHIBITION HAVANA ANTES Y DESPUES by Therese Hadchity
Athough a self-portrait,"Isolation"(1995)(cat no6)is not a typical painting by Ras Ishi.While first presenting itself as one of the most readily accessible amongst his works,a sense of ambiguity gradually transplants itself to the viewer. Is this vision internal or external ? Is the "Isolation" chosen, as a necessity for the artistic development,or imposed as a consequence of it ? Of greater significance,however is the notion implied by the composition itself.CENTER IN relation to the surroundings stars and planets ,the solitary figure becomes a metaphor for the cognitive mind,which cannot think of itself as anything but the centre of the universe.Furthermore by rendering himself transparent ,the artist seems to acknowledged that he is a prism,through which something becomes visable to us.But a prism is in the idosyncratic medium,which colours and distort the image.The painting's formal stucture ,therefore compellingly describes the essentilly solipistic nature of Ishi's work and its more increasingly more psychological and abstacted character.
Already in the early paintings like Hills and Valleys 2 (1994)cat no 2 ,do we witness a stylization of variegation and people,signalling,that the painters intention is far from that of realism.images of a harmonious and cyclical relation between nature and mankind,These early works are anchored in rural childhood memories.Amongst theses are "Tenderplant" 1992 (fig 1) and the series "Lily of the valleys 1-4"(1993) (cat no 3).In the marginally later paintings,such ad the "Untitled" garden-scene cat (1995)(cat no8) as well as Hills and valleys 2,people and foliage become more edged and less organic,tending towards a cubist distillation into basic form-elements.
A strinking ant-thesis to these pastoral images is the very large painting "Cops and Robbers" (1992)(cat.no1),in which a profusion of images create the scene of chaos,which is associated with a big city.Contrasting rural scenes and symbols are interspersed between the city images.Urbanization is thereby describe as a traumatic process of framentation and alienation,at worst leading to an opposition between society and individual - as here exemplified by the police and the delinquient,who appears to be more lost,than guilty, as if the gun has found it's own way into his hands.
The 9ft wide diptych "400 years"(1994)(cat.no 4) takes the large scale to the extreme .Rather than being a social analysis the "Cops and Robbers","400 years" is an elegy on the colonial project and it's consequences. The blue,red,yellow,black and white color-planes are like continents ,only connected by the tail of the whip,in the hand of the overseer. Churches, ships,gallows,crucifixions,field workers,skulls and many other emblems appear everywhere without being directly related to each other, but all as indicators of the same gruesome narrative.the impact of the painting,owes a lot to this fragmented form; the pain of the Diaspora exceeds any cohesive explanation - an attempt at establishing a linear notion of cause and effect would divert the attention from that of suffering, which is absolute. It might be said, that the fragmentation itself speaks about the nature of the tragedy, of uprooting, displacement and discontinuity. However; as much as it is a lamentation of the Diaspora, "400 years" is also,quite clearly a compositional statement in it's own
It is important to note, that technique, orchestration and control in Ishi's oeuvre is as important as are the iconographic issues. "400 years" is a typical example of his laborious concern with the
balance and order of the composition.
In "Starve" from the following year (1995) (cat. no. 9),the narrative is abandoned in favor of a singular; haunting figure. Here, Ishi manages even more convincingly to integrate form and message: the starving figure, as if in an ultimate appeal, reaches out - there is no depth behind him, nothing to return to, his body has already been invaded by the background. "Starve" also denotes a transition from images, which are drawn from the external world, to those, where the internalization becomes more evident: the expanded psyche is witnessed by the figure, which has become inseparable from it's surroundings. Where the original "400 years" addresses the Middlepassage. "400 years remix" (cat. no. 7) describes life in the cane-fields thereafter: Caused by the intense heat and white light the field-worker has a hallucinatory vision of the sparse ingredients in his humble existence - church, sun, Stars and the choreographed movements of the other workers. As in the original "400 years", no reasoning is attempted, the intention with a painting like this is not didactics, but empathy and ritual.The ritualistic approach is taken even further in "High Chambers III" (cat. no. 5), which is at once landscape and symbolic self-projection. By the mere use of color-opposites (red/green, black/white) the painting is infused with a tension,
which enhances it's dramatic and psychological quality. The "playing-field" for symbolic interaction between the figures might here be a constellation of town/country, day/night black/white etc. "Lovestory King" (1995) (fig. 2) represents the consummation of this tendency. The central, one-eyed figure is engaged in what seems to be an ambivalent act of negotiation between the other figures, of which the painter is one (symbolized by the single flower in the red vase). There is no longer any reference to the external world - the painting is strictly a venue for the symbolic enactment of real or imagined conflict and ambition. This is a ritualistic space, where meaning is reserved for the initiated. The painting has become an act of black magic - a projection of desire and
appropriation, of justice and redemption.
So far the internalization of Ishi's oeuvre. While the next painting "untitled" (1996) (cat. no. 10) continues this symbolic activity; it also deviates from the increasingly hermetic character of the others: this piece acts on two levels, pointing inwards and outwards at the same time. The large painting, which was produced during a holiday in Barbados, while Ishi studied in Cuba, was inspired by the painter's encounter with the Cuban Santeria-cult. As in "lovestory King" , the composition stages the symbolic confrontation of incompatible forces (equating the cultritual). Nevertheless, the particular significance of this painting is located in it's technique and structural administration: When the lower edge of the canvas has been left unfinished, it is not a mistake, but a signal to the spectator: The "running" streaks of paint are intended to tell us about the process of building up colors - a metamorphosis, which, in a sense, represents an act of magic and purification, paralleling the cleansing function of the religious ritual, which the painting refers to. Likewise, the grid-like structure of the paint contributes to the impression of control and,again, creates an accordance between composition and theme, which is precisely that of (shamanistic) control and manipulation. Finally, the lack of perspective and emphasis on surface seems to acknowledge, that no illusion of depth is needed, since this is not the realm of the physical, but of the symbolic and ritualistic. It has earlier (in "400 years" and "Starve") been noticed, how the structure in many of Ishi's paintings not only "selflessly" express the idea of the painting, but also, "selfconsciously", mime it (quite like the sign above the bakery being shaped like a pretzel!). Here, the intentional exposure of the form-elements reveal a new awareness and policy on the side of the artist. While the theme may be deeply personal, the function of the painting is now more extroverted. Where "Lovestory King" in itself approached a magic ritual, the "Santeria-painting" describes it. This circumstance as well as the explicit form-awareness, indicates a new distance to the content and to the act of representing it
Ishi's "Santeria-painting" and Akyem's "Altar for j.M.Basquiat", are strikingly similar in their thrifty colorscheme, minimalist drawing and economical treatment of space: separately, the two bodies of work have undergone a process of distillation: These paintings bear evidence of both artists being engaged in a re-investigation of the essential elements, mechanisms, limitations and potentials of painting. They represent a rare moment where Ishi's and Akyem's work in appearance approaches that of the other: In reality, however; they spell out the vast and fundamental difference in motivation and approach between the two painters.
Ishi's paintings are visual symphonies, where the rawness of the images is compensated for by the brilliance of color and never-failing balance of the composition. Because the painting is a ritual of establishing order; as much as it is a vehicle for the communication of another message, the artist
cannot afford to relinquish control over the creative process. This explains the tightly structured quality of his work. Ishi perceives of the artist's role as that of a demiurge - the completed art-object represents an end-product of his transformation of the material.
Akyem, in turn, makes no attempt at balancing the composition or establishing order; since the artwork, for him, is not an end-product, but part of a perpetual dialogue between the artist and the medium.The dual outcome of this ongoing process, is the simultaneous deliverance of the artwork and the artist. Akyem's motivation, therefore, is existential: the purpose is the process itself.