Annie Paul | Bouquets and brickbats for National Gallery
Carolyn Cooper's Sunday column 'What's up at the National Gallery?' raises a number of tendentious issues related to the selection process for inclusion in the Jamaica Biennial. The questions may have been prompted by the rejection of Cooper's sister's work by the jury, but it raises pertinent issues.
Cooper also took the opportunity to comment on one of the highlights of the Biennial, Laura Facey's magnificent drum, 'Ceiba', which I mentioned in my last column. Critiques are a good thing because they allow one to discuss matters that would benefit from clarification. I'm going to take the opportunity to do that.
Full disclosure: I'm a member of the current board of the National Gallery and also an art writer of many years standing.
As executive director of the National Gallery, Veerle Poupeye, explains in the catalogue, the 2017 Biennial is an outgrowth of the Annual National exhibition which took place every year till 2002 when it became a biennial event.
A prominent feature of the Biennial model is the provision of space to artists interested in experimenting with new ideas and practices, for instance, those producing artworks whose scale and size exceed the space available in commercial galleries, or simply artists producing work that is not commodified and therefore not amenable to gallery representation. Biennales are the diametrical opposite of art fairs, the primary imperative of which is displaying art for buyers and collectors as opposed to providing a venue for artists to reach for the sky, producing work they normally would not consider undertaking.
Thus, Laura Facey's 'Ceiba' is the perfect Biennale object as Kobena Mercer, a distinguished art historian from Yale University, remarked after viewing it at the opening. Cooper quibbles about its size, saying that the scale of the drum is "far beyond human proportions" and that it was unrecognisable as an instrument of communication. She seems to forget that 'Ceiba' is in the gallery as an art object, not an actual communication tool.
Another bone of contention was the constitution of the Jamaica Biennial itself, the 'invited list' of artists with a "well-established track record" as opposed to the juried list of those who responded to the call for entries. The invited list is a holdover from the days of the Annual National, a way to ensure the inclusion of works by senior artists who might not otherwise respond to a general call for entries. The principle is one that is widely followed, even in academia, where, for instance, conference organisers might put out a call for papers, but specially invite those whose work they consider important to include, senior scholars who might otherwise be disinclined to respond to a general call.
In the case of the National Gallery, the invited list has grown too large and unwieldy to be comfortably accommodated in a Biennial exhibition of the kind being contemplated. But attempts to prune this list drastically were met with hostility and resistance from those concerned, leading the board to decide to retain the list for this biennial with a view to reforming the process in future.
As a possible way out of this impasse, I am on record as suggesting that the National Gallery might follow the Cuban model and split the exhibition into two, with a national, more inward-looking exhibition every other year, and a more outward-looking Biennale-type show during the alternate years. My suggestion was supported by several board members but not accepted by the executive director and her team for this Biennial, though I'm glad to see it described in her catalogue essay as a solution that's 'gaining traction'.
But back to the selection process. As one of the jurors, Amanda Coulson, executive director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas, explains in the catalogue, what guided selection choice was not so much qualitative judgements, as in "Is this work good enough to be in the Jamaica Biennial?" but how the various works would interact or 'converse' with each other. Thus no one whose work was not included in this edition of the Biennial need feel slighted or 'judged'.
The long and short of it is that there's always room for improvement, but this Biennial is a far more balanced and well-curated exhibition than the 2014 one where many on the invited list felt shunted into non-descript spaces and generally disregarded. For this the curatoriat deserves nothing but congratulations.
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul.