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In our light: Hinkson shows new works in Plain to See
Sometimes people can be blind to what is directly before their eyes. Donald “Jackie” Hinkson’s latest exhibition Plain to See is an invitation to take the time to scrutinise the world—both the immediate surroundings of T&T and the wider arena of the globe. “The title of the exhibition suggests that our reality is right there, in front of you. It also hints at the fact that my work is rooted in what is in my environment—the physical and the social,” Hinkson explained.
On another level, the title of his show is also a call for viewers to see beyond the surface of such subject matter as beach scenes and old houses, which some might dismiss as mere decorative images with little or no depth of meaning. For Hinkson, an image can have several levels of symbolism. In Bus Stopped, one of his new plein-air watercolour paintings, Hinkson renders an old abandoned vehicle ensconced in rich tropical greenery. Yet there is more to see in the piece. “I pass that old bus on the road all the time in Tobago. Instinctively it pulls me but I don’t stop to wonder why it pulls me. “While I am painting, however, I might say: ‘A shell of a bus? What might it mean beyond the mood, tone and colours?’ I say, ‘Obviously it is a symbol of dereliction. It can be a broader philosophical statement of the inevitability of death. It can be a comment on this specific society and the ease with which things are discarded, a comment on the world, on death, or all at once,’” Hinkson said. “At the same time, doesn’t it have a celebratory mood with a certain amount of an optimistic light? Can’t I have all of these, sometimes contradictory things, in one work?”
Hinkson has been painting land and seascapes, architecture and people of the Caribbean region for decades and has built such a strong oeuvre since his studies in Paris and Canada in the 1960s that in 2011 the University of the West Indies granted him an honorary doctorate. His work is noted for its more figurative slant, that is, artworks with forms that are more recognisable and realistic. Hinkson attributes this tendency toward figuration to his admiration for the work of the calypsonian. “I always loved the idea that a calypsonian could communicate with a broad public. I also want to communicate broadly. This explains why my imagery has remained recognisable,” he said.
Behind the layer of figuration, however, the viewer can find a visual foundation that is pure abstraction. “When I approach a watercolour painting outdoors, I am faced with foliage, road, roof, sea. My focus is not on what the objects are. I don’t say: ‘This is galvanise, this is fish, this is water.’ My focus is on: ‘What do I leave out, shift, exaggerate? What do I juxtapose next to what?’ So my thinking is totally abstract,” he said. Hinkson combines a concern with shapes, lines, space and balance with a Caribbean heat and light. In his discussion about a painting of a hot day at the beach, depicting people sheltering from the sun under the triangular thatched roof of a hut, Hinkson pinpointed the possibility of seeing in the work something familiarly Caribbean. “The burning heat of midday, where shadows stamped on the ground turn a black-purple, to me is a Caribbean experience. But while painting it I was also fully conscious of where I placed that triangular roof, how big, what I was doing with the coconut tree trunks in the image and the shape between them.”
Pushing the pigment
What is now discernible too, for those who have followed his watercolour works over the years, is his effort to increase the density of tones, for example in his description of dark rocks near a shoreline, without the colours becoming too murky and losing their radiance. “I am trying to push the pigment as far as I can. I am pushing the tonal weight of things but still trying to keep the light—but not just any light, our light,” he explained. If the meanings in his watercolours require closer, careful looking, Hinkson’s oil paintings in the exhibition are more overt in their social commentary.
“A darkening cloud in a watercolour might hint at something happening in the society—something foreboding—but I can be a little more direct in my oils,” he said.
Hinkson’s oil paintings include his attention to the growing presence of billboards in T&T’s visual landscape. His pieces incorporate those billboards, often showing how they stand ironically with other structures in cities and neighbourhoods. For example, a huge advertisement for an expensive product might loom over an impoverished area of the island. In the painting All Inclusive, Hinkson puts a billboard, the Napa building and the National Museum side by side, perhaps in a visual account of an indiscriminate embrace of everything in the country. “I am not criticising it though. I am saying this is our reality,” Hinkson said.
Along with a look at billboards, Hinkson also puts a spotlight on another reality: the exploitation and objectification of women. He presents paintings that are more patently abstract as he describes the female figure in segments: a leg, a curve of the hip, a portion of a torso. These works are a return to a minimalist approach he explored while he studied abroad in the 1960s. Ultimately his exhibition is about awareness of the world, a state of being that he finds particularly important for artists: “Artists have to be aware. They must remain responsive to what is happening here and internationally.”
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