REVIEW OF THE ISOLATION EXHIBITION, by Rupert Roopnaraine
The title of this exhibition of the most recent paintings of Ras Ishi Butcher,is also the title of one of the most accomplished of the pictures-the portrait of the artist, caged yet assertive, eyes looking not straight ahead but off to the left, watchful,ready.
It is a painting about suffering and the transcendence of suffering. Utterly devoid of self-pity,it speaks to the resilience and indomitability of the human spirit.Painted late in the sequence,it is a study in the richness and inexhaustible potentiality of blackness,colour of the infinite.Martin Carter,the master poet of Guyana,called it "the great dark".The final overlay of black through which the underpainted colours shimmer,shot through here and there with bright stars and spots of colour,produces an effect at once
sumptuous and joyful.It is a painting of defiance and affirmation.
For Ishi, Isolation is the necessary condition not only of the artist,struggling to create in an environment he finds inhospitable to creativity,but also of the human person, marooned in a world of uncertainty and shifting relations,driven to a continuously renewed search for wholeness,for the essential integrity of being in the world.Isolation is desolation;but it is also consolation.It is the withdrawal into self for the journey inward to the life-giving sources of energy.It is the condition from which the fetters on the forces of being are to be unlocked.In painting after painting,light triumphs over darkness,order over chaos,creation over destruction. The picture Isolation establishes the moral and psychological context of the entire series of paintings.
Ishi acknowledges his indebtedness to the ideas of the Guyanese artist,thinker and archaeologist,Denis Williams,who has spoken of
"investing the ordinary with the miraculous". The sense of the miraculous is everywhere in this series of paintings, expectedly so in the spiritual paintings such as Rastafarian Mystic and Celestial I as well as, in a secular vein, the two haunting and joyous songs of love, Love Story King and Love Story Queen, with their narrative wit and lightheartedness.
The paintings group themselves into three sequences. In the first, the Black Orchid series, the themes and images are predominantly social. These are among the most tendentious of the paintings, polemical and at times strident with protest and indignation. At their most achieved, they are chants of compassion and solidarity. Witness the dignity of the labouring poor oppressed and lorded over by the cork-hatted and ubiquitious bossman. In the face of the anti-life, the unstoppable assertion of life and growth: tendrils burst from seeds and minute, unadorned figures, basic as the figures in early cave drawings, stand for a reality above and below the "historical" scenes in the fields of the plantation. Organised around strong central figures, hands firmly gripping the tools that connect the labourers to the earth, these paintings are muted in tone and classical in design.
The second series, the Queen Contestant paintings differs from the first thematically, but proceeds along similar lines and in essentially the same basic idiom: the central figure, majestic and untroubled, around whom the familiar images and marks proliferate. The patterns are more intricate, with the broken outlines adding visual interest to the static pose. Here too, the modulations of colour and tone are carefully controlled. In both the Black Orchid and the Queen Contestant series, the continuity with Ishi's early work is clear. There is certainly an expansion of the language and the themes have been deepened. But we are still in the idiomatic domain of the Lilies Of The Valley.
With Celestial I, which opens the final sequence, a leap occurs. It is a leap in vision and in idiom. Celestial I is the
most purely abstract of all the paintings; masses of colour in a jigsaw pattern, inscribed with the now familiar marks of tendrils, of the recurrent millipede coiled into the life circle, of the halo of power, the minute figures, all disposed with an eye to design and with long experience of composition. From this point onwards, the pictures become less and less busy, more concentrated, less complicated, and more complex. Compare the sparsely populated 400 Years (Remix) with the bustling Black Orchid II. As the sequence unfolds, the paintings become progressively simplified, stripped down to essentials, eschewing superfluous detail, striving for a graphic reduction where spareness acquires the universality of the first human marks, the star the coil, the line, the circle.
A parallel reduction occurs in the realm of colour. The masses of colour, now in jigsaw patterns ("Celestial", now in panels of green, of black and of white floating strangely against a red background (High Chambers III) give way progressively to the virtually monochromatic surfaces of Isolation and 400 Years (Remix). It is worth noting that the majority of the paintings are built up from a limited palette; the neutrals, black and white, and one or two primary colours. Indeed, one of the true achievements of these recent paintings is the confidence Ishi has acquired in the application of the paint and the construction of masses of colour. In the final pieces, beginning with 400 Years (Remix) and continuing through Isolation and Black Rose A & I the surfaces have a rich and sensuous feel. The basketry effect achieved in the application of the yellow at the bottom of High Chambers III is fully exploited and developed in 400 Years (Remix) and gives to the final paintings their shimmering vibrancy.
Because the paintings were in every sense technical as well as psychological and spiritual explorations, there are occasional instances of
overstatement and of failure to resolve awkwardness of tonality, imagery and scale. Love Story Queen provides one such instance: the effect of the discord established between the floating green panels and the purple background is jeopardized by the high value of the green. The unnatural
unworked green is too close to the white end of the spectrum. Were the green to be lowered in value by the addition of black, the discord as such would not be affected. Instead, it would generate the required tension, and cause the painting to sing as High Chambers III sings. Here the orchestration of marks, the manipulation of the picture planes entirely through geometry and chromatics and the nature of the objects themselves combine to create a singing, lyrical work. The magical black that does not recede as black usually does but comes out from the picture plane is a prelude to the black of Isolation. The other painting where the black comes out from the picture plane and where the spatial manipulation is a marvel of achievement is the spare 400 Years (Remix). Can the black border at the top of the picture be an inverted horizon? The play of planes would be complete.
In the realm of the images, the potted plant in High Chambers III, in Love Story King and Love Story Queen is uncomfortably naturalistic in the midst of the other highly abstracted images whose company it shares. Similarly, the central figure in Forsaken. In the matter of scale, the lines of the marks scratched on the exquisitely worked surface of Isolation are somehow out of scale, given the raised bars of the prison. Flaws certainly, but these are the flaws of exuberance, of experiment and discovery. The newly won freedom to apply mark and paint is not without risk.
While certain images recur from painting to painting and we are carried over from sequence to sequence, their meaning varies
with each new context, each new association. Certain of the images are the ordinary creatures of this world, many of them the agrarian icons Ishi has evolved over the years: lizards, millipedes, vines, seeds, flowers, thorn stems. Others are biomorphic forms, shifting in their resemblances and representations; the amoeba-like form in the green panel of High Chambers III, and repeated in the red and yellow background. It is also the form of the artist's palette. And it is the possibility of other forms. Many are spontaneously drawn. Still others derive from the painter's private experience, part of the psychic fallout of deep experience.The viewer is not required to translate these images into another language,that is,to find out what they "mean".Instead, an enigmatic encounter, outside the walls of logic.These passages,be they of abstract plays of colour or of gratuitous marks,are the paintings' zones of mystery where the truth of the image springs not from science but from magic.Not all is knowable,certainly not in the ways we have been schooled to know.
There is too , a progressive simplification of the human figure.The dominant and detailed figures of the black Orchids and the Queen Contestants,in their particularising psychologies, are later reduce to the simplest and most basic of outlines.No more than gesture is indicated .Stripped of all individuation,these characters are free to be and become anything.It is the condition of the caribbean personality, always in flux, always about to become anyone,a condition of preverse freedom, of utter potentiality.
Among the paintings are several that are seminal- they contain seeds of the future paintings.And it is how the work progressed, with paintings giving birth to other paintings.Take the panel containing the potted plant in high chambers III.Isolated,magnified,enriched,it is triumphant image of the two paintings that close the sequence and the exhibition.Black Rose A and Black Rose I.Resuming the theme of sacrifice and struggle, the flowers weep for nourishment even as they bloom,triumphant over the confinement of the pot,their stems marked with the signs of hard growth.Painted in tribute to the brotherhood and out of a remembrance of shared struggles,the black roses A and I are Akyemi and Ishi.comrades-in-arms who have brought a raw vigour,a bright vision and their own vital truths to the art of the caribbean.
Explorations in the possibilities of the self,Ishi's recent paintings have opened up for him new possibilities of artistic expression.He has journeyed to the source and come back with glittering treasure.And we are all enriched.