The vending machine

Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago Gallery host Karen Sylvester

From the moment she entered the arena of Art making and selling, Karen Sylvester has generated much talk and speculation. The emotion is mostly of the green kind. People huddle with you in corners of the gallery and talk about how much money she is making and what they have heard about her private life. This is not so unusual in Trinidad and Tobago. The Art community is small and going to shows is like going to a family outing, there are always characters to encounter, people to duck, people to air kiss and people to approach like long lost family. Behaviour is to be monitored, food and drink to talk over and lots of empty conversation to fill awkward spaces.

Yet, with Karen Sylvester and her work, I have found an artist who is consistently and unexpectedly controversial because she is perceived as a success. It is said that heavy is the crown of the King. But in this case, heavy is the emotion of the court. At her last show held at the newly named Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago by the master of selling art, Mark Perriera, I found myself looking at her work with the vaguest memory of the whispers. No one ever says Ms. Sylvester cannot paint. No one ever says that she is unable to convince you that her plants and rolling hills are not nearly photorealistic in nature. What everyone gets up in arms about is how well she is doing. Is this a representation of how we in Trinidad treat each others success? I went in search of the answers to the questions that keeps coming up about the artist.

There is a violent divide about what art should be in Trinidad and Tobago, and some how Miss Sylvester is caught up in the hailstorm. I don’t hear the wrangling questions against photorealism at a Neal Massy show? I don’t hear it at a Larry Mosca show? But at a Karen Sylvester show there is no middle ground. There are either people who love her pastoral poetry or those who hate it. Everyone is a critic.

I was asked to write about Miss Sylvester many years ago when a large painting she had done of the Wildflower Trust of lotus flowers was priced at TT$200,000. No one could stop talking about the cost of the work. Unlike the American artist W.H.McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne more than a century ago, no one was getting up in arms and stating publicly that she should justify her price. People were just agog at what a painting could fetch. The work was not sold at that show. It has subsequently been sold. Yet, it was a big moment in local art history.

It harkened back to LeRoy Clarke’s million dollar sale of his work that did cause much brow beating and nashing of teeth. This begs another question, should artists have to justify their prices? Why does the art community and the art buying public get so sensitive when an artist can actually ‘make a living’? Why get up in arms when an artist calls a price?


The envy in any Trinidadian living room

As I walked around the gallery space, so much improved from the years of dusty, none descript raw space, now sparkling new with good light and air conditioning, I saw some new developments in her work. Her ‘Mash Dog” and “Cane Cutter” are examples. There are people inhabiting the land, unlike much of her work in the past that featured only nature. But this is not the development. Looking more closely at the latter painting, one can see an attempt to break out of a tried, tested and proven technique, an attempt to bring more expression to composition and use of media.


Cutting through the technique

It cannot be easy being so successful with a style of work. I asked Neal Massy at his last show this year, how he handles doing new things. He too has steadily explored new ideas in his work, for example the use of Sfumato, a hazy middle ground invented by Leonardo Di Vinci. Mr. Massy is also now adding a bit of typography in signage where his lone birds perch, as well as looking at interior spaces. These works are introduced in small ways into the show, practically placed first or last in an attempt to not jolt the buyer into seeing something too radically different from a steady style of work.

This begs the next question. All artists work to make a living, ie. Make money. So why is it that so many artist have a hard time with the artists who make successful livings selling work of a particular nature? Yes I have seen a million landscapes, Magnificent Seven, old house, black woman with turban until I can draw them in my sleep. As a commodity our society does not tire of these representations of our ‘culture’ and ‘heritage.’ For many buyers the thought expressed is that they want the uncomplicated and pretty, and the more ‘radical’ contemporary artists take up their toys and setups, accusing them of bad taste, no taste and god forbid, nouveau riche ways. But if these same people were to turn around and say let me see your work again…well! The arguments are that her work is soulless. That she uses a projector that she traces from photography. There is too much of that photorealism around. She’s polluting the market with same old, same old. This is a circular argument.

Our is an ambivalent crowd. On the one hand there are the pretty painters, the Sunday painters and on the other hand there are the Abstract Expressionists and the New Media specialists. With very little ground and no tolerance it is plain to see that works that do not tear or interfere with the social fabric of the nation shall always be with us.

Everyone can work, everyone is different. So why is Karen Sylvester always in the headlights? This shall not end here, but I shall do so by stating, Miss. Sylvester’s career unwittingly encourages many questions. Holding up many opinions to serious scrutiny, all pointing outward at us, and in the life of an artist, is that not what good work is supposed to do anyway? – Adele. Also see Photorealism versus Paintrealism

%d bloggers like this: