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The history of an artist

Posted in Art Papers, Debate by Adele Todd on November 30, 1999

What does it take to put on a show about the history of someone’s career? What does it take to put on a show of recent work by someone with a very long career of successful work? In Trinidad and Tobago this task seems to be impossible. It is with sadness that I write that the shows that I have been seeing that focus on the works of artists and photographers who have built solid reputations over the course of their career have left me asking more questions than can be answered. I do not understand why the shows are produced so very cheaply. The framing, hanging, lighting, none of these things seem to been taken into account. I choose not to mention what shows these have been, as it is a phenomenon that I have witnessed no matter who put on the show.

I am also concerned about whether the people who have built these long standing careers are in fact fine with the outcome of these shows? Most recently one such pioneer produced a series of new works that greatly reduced what I have come to consider their strong sense of originality, craftsmanship and beauty for a very commercial, low quality, high priced churned out collection. I know that crime is our main concern in Trinidad and Tobago at this time. But as an artist myself I have to state here that in my profession where so many of my colleagues complain that they are not given enough respect or funding, there is the other side, what is the real quality of what is produced and displayed? I have been trying to monitor the cost of art over the last ten years and the trends that I have observed are quite questionable.

There are people who come right out of A’Levels and the University of the West Indies Art programme and begin to sell work at prices on par with artists who have been working for several years. It makes me ask, who regulates these prices? I must be clear here, I have nothing against people making livings in art. What I wonder is who and how do these costs get calculated?

What are people paying for? The framing? The skill of the artist? What? So much of the work that is seen in gallery spaces looks alike, so you know that you are not buying something that is necessarily original. Yet many things sell consistently from year to year, yet other things do not. Sometimes I find myself admiring the frames and not the works. Many artists themselves have pre conceived notions about what the public wants, and go out of their way to produce work in a sort of indiscriminate way, putting as much as they can on display, with no thought to whether the pieces stand together to produce a cohesive whole. Then there is the fact that the public does not ask but reacts. Yes it is true that a work should speak to you and move you, and ultimately once you purchase something, you live with it and enjoy it long after the money has left your account.

Also, yes, I remember the bad old days when people would come into a gallery space and say that they wanted something to go with their couch. That is just the way people felt at the time. I recall one woman using a Pantone colour chart to pick the tones she saw in an artists work, She breezily said that she was just repainting her house and wanted those colours from the painting! What gall! I must add one more memory of those times, I also recall some very well off people whispering to an artist whether they should buy the work of the very senior artist whose work they had come to see. They had no interest in the work at all, in fact they could not understand it. You see, they knew that he was looking a bit frail and were told that whatever they bought, the work should appreciate in value when he died any day soon. I am happy to say that the person lived a few more years and had many more shows.

What I want to say about work and cost and attitudes ultimately is that we in Trinidad and Tobago have about one hundred years of work by artists, and just like our carnival, it seems to be a very disposable commodity with no checks and balances. Surely we can do better than we have. Talk about what gives work value, put on quality shows that show an actual regard for our long working artists. We boast that we are so sophisticated in many ways, and yet we keep trying to dig the eye out of everyone else, giving people a 6 for a 9. Come on, crime does not only come in bodily harm. Just something to think about. The value placed on Art in this Republic, Trinidad and Tobago.

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