Eggs, Pyramids, Bicycles and Ladders: Bryan McFarlane’s Evolving Visual Motifs
Over his quite remarkable career, Bryan McFarlane has developed a forceful visual language characterized by a highly individual iconography composed from elements in his own ‘postcolonial Jamaican background’, and enriched by his engagement with other cultural traditions through travel. To sum up McFarlane’s visual language is one phase, I would offer that “history and escape” provide the dominant themes, each being expressed differently as McFarlane has grown as an artist through his international travels.
Part of the first generation of Jamaican artists born after independence, McFarlane’s work is rooted in the postcolonial struggle to find appropriate visual expression for both the “history” black cultural roots and his ambition to “escape” by contributing to the international contemporary art scene. His desire to better understand his Jamaican heritage and his global aspirations led him to travel widely, and to join in the discourse that has animated the global post-colonial world. Critical ideas ranging from hybridity, creolization, modernity, deconstruction to conceptualism have engaged him. He has explored contemporary and avantgarde cultural theories and has considered the ideas of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Edward Said and Jacques Derrida. Contemporary critical discussion is an intellectual landscape that he has made home. Feeling a strong bond with people of the “Third World” and people of color, McFarlane, like many Jamaicans and Africans of the late 20th century, understands the ways that the colonial experience distorts personalities, inflicts psychological pain and leaves lasting economic scars, yet he resolved to claim a place on the world’s stage through his creative genius as a visual artist. His tools were a rich appreciation of his own subjectivity, an openness to the world beyond himself, acceptance of the jeopardy of exercising his existential freedom to be creative, and a commitment to master the discipline of art-making. His kit of intellectual and practical tools have served him well.
After studying at the Jamaica School of Art and the Massachusetts College of Art, McFarlane continued learning through further study and travel in Africa, Europe, South America and Asia. He also became a university teacher. As his career progressed, he strove to share what he was learning with his students in the United States, as well as with students and institutions back in his native country. He found himself not just seeking fellowships for his own purposes, but also to support ways in which he could broaden and enrich the learning experiences of young artists that he touched through teaching, and through relationships across national and cultural boundaries. A sense of mission toward his students and his native Jamaica became inseparable from his personal ambitions for recognition as a contemporary artist.
Though initially a figurative painter whose work was influenced by Expressionism, he has evolved an approach that is substantially abstract and infused with a deep sense of mystery. In this current exhibition where a considerable span of his career is presented, all of these aspects of his style and content are evident.
At the outset of his career, McFarlane was a figurative artist. Although his art is now largely inclined toward abstraction, he has never abandoned figuration. In The Wedding, for example, he reinvents a long-ago family event deriving his images from an old photograph that he converts into digitalized forms. From a figurative starting point, he used tiny blocks of muted color to dematerialize the figures converting them ultimately into a totally abstract field of colored squares or pixels. Of course, you could also view the series of six panels stacked in columns of two in reverse, that is, as the progressive revelation of the marriage scene from ‘pixelized’ abstraction to representational clarity. In either case, this remarkable multi-panel work is visually fascinating. It is probable that the approach explored in The Wedding owes inspiration in some measure to the watercolorist Richard Yarde, who also breaks his forms into small fields of colors often akin to pixels. In a more recent painting–Sorting out Perceptions I, II and III, McFarlane has returned to figurative elements–including a self-portrait–integrated with other icons and motifs widely used in his abstract art.
McFarlane came from a quite particular Jamaican background, one that sprang from the heavy African presence–a legacy of transatlantic slavery– in the largest and most populous English-speaking island of the Caribbean. He grew up in a Maroon community with ancestral ties to the Akan cultural groups of Ghana in West Africa. Later he spent time in Ghana where he produced a body of work evoking lingering strands of his heritage, strands that he has sometimes forgot or under-appreciated. In the old slave forts along the Ghanaian coast, he saw stacks of cannon balls that had once given the Europeans the power to dominate black majorities in the Americas and to exploit the African coast and interior.
McFarlane also traveled to Brazil, the second most populous black nation in the world after Nigeria, where he visited the colonial capital of San Salvador, touring ancient Baroque churches where African religious practices such as Candomble’ blend with Catholicism in an amazingly syncretic way. Those centuries-old spaces with their flickers of light filtered through stained glass inspired McFarlane to imagine the enduring black will to live despite oppressive circumstances. For McFarlane, the spaces seemed infused with the residue of their presence, with the lingering spiritual weight of their having been there. McFarlane’s iconography ponders how cultural beliefs persevere and reassert themselves across time, thereby creating formidable history as well as yearnings for escape.
McFarlane would again encounter a similarly sobering appreciation of the persistence of belief and memory in the dark interiors of churches and mosques in Turkey. From these experiences, he internalized a sense of the mystery that pervades old spaces where people have lived, worshipped and died. Such spaces have been imbued with a kind of spiritual resonance that is immutable: likewise, they contain elemental fragments that suggest an indomitable will to escape.
In the painting Stool, McFarlane assembles several types of artifacts that associate themselves metaphorically with spiritual concerns. A stool becomes simultaneously a personal icon and a national symbol. The stool, also accurately described as a bench, reminded McFarlane of ones used by artisans when he was just a boy in “Old Jamaica.” It stood in for a sense of place and time in his growing up, while also representing creative force–the power to make things as craftsmen did. In the Ghanaian context, the stool embodied the very soul of the nation, the idea of kingship that unites Akan people and finds expression in the person of the Asantehene. Singularly or in clusters, many containers fill much of the remaining picture area. These bowls and jars symbolize the sacred power of water to cleanse, restore, and refresh. The bowls are also an African equivalent of the chalice, for they are also used to pour libations and for communal drinking of wine. Some of the calabash containers offer large hollowed-out interiors that suggests places of protection, places like the womb that both shelter and nurture. Near the bottom left of the picture beneath more containers are a slice of watermelon and the hint of a serpent moving across the floor. Many burning candles, their yellow flickering illumination relieving the dominant brown palette, provide sacred light tying the painting together and uniting the stool with the distant lights of the upper left corner.
Dimly lighted spaces bathed in mystery appear again in Interior from the Turkish Series. A vast dark, interior with views down vaulted hallways toward splashes of shimmering light, opens before us, revealing hints of colored light perhaps washed through a clerestory of colored glass. Like a great bathhouse, reflections enliven the floor and bounce back the light from an oculus overhead. No people appear, yet the cavernous space with its grand architecture washed by moody blue shadows, still exudes a sense of lingering human presence. Istanbul light, also from the Turkish Series, continues the nocturnal mood offering a vista of the fabled city lighted in the distance and framed by flanking domes and towers in the mid-ground and candles in the foreground. Only slightly visible are curvilinear patterns in the foreground shadows perhaps evincing the influence of calligraphy in the Islamic world.
Stool, a work previously introduced, belongs to the Egg Series, and does indeed count amongst its container forms that quite special container known as an egg. For McFarlane, the Egg Series constitutes a large body of work–large enough to provoke the question What does the egg mean for him?
The egg as a symbol has several meanings for McFarlane. Sometimes it is meant to remind us of the promise of new life and therefore of new possibilities. This is a common value associated the eggs. Sometimes it is a symbol of the fragility of the new, because it shelters developing life within thin walls that can be easily broken. Still other times it recalls metamorphosis, because from the simple ovoid shape of the egg emerges creatures of great complexity, much as from a dull cocoon may emerge a beautiful butterfly. In both case, an element of dramatic transformation arises from how one form gives way to another. It is possible sometimes for the egg to symbolize escape since the cracking of its shell gives freedom to the newly born creature. Lastly, the egg represents sustenance. We eat eggs in so many ways–boiled, fried, in cakes and pies–that only with difficulty can we imagine the human diet without eggs.
In the Egg Series as in others, McFarlane does not tightly script his iconography, preferring to leave a great deal of room for the viewer to interpret the banquet of shapes and icons that he has spread for their enjoyment. The interpretations that I share in this essay, however, are based on conversations with the artist himself.
An Untitled (Brown interior) painting from the Egg Series provides an interesting transition between works such as Stool and later more abstract ones that were to follow. In Stool and Untitled, McFarlane begins by suggesting interior spaces constructed as a kind of box. There are clear indicators of floor and wall planes. In the case of the later work, there are even the hints of a window and perhaps some type of interior platform or bed though none of these are literally rendered. The brown cast of the interior reinforces the impression of constructed, layered space, although the egg forms float in space without any anchor. They seem more important for how they mediate between abstract and somewhat concrete aspects of the painting than for any symbolic significance that they might harbor. This could be said to have become abstract elements justified by the visual drama or balance that they contribute to the overall composition.
Works in the Egg Series are largely abstract in treatment, preserving only in a general way the primary image of the egg. For example, in The Joining, McFarlane has situated four egg shapes on a picture plane that is divided into three stacked rectangles or windows. In the lowest window, two eggs appear. One is simply outlined against the ground in virtually the same color, and near to it is a golden egg partially encircled by a blue-green arc. In the middle window no egg appears although a beautiful green shadow from a pair of eggs above falls along its upper border. The shadow, like a tuft of grass, cradles a yellow and gold egg that seems as rich as jewelry. Immediately behind it rises a white egg defined by a border transitioning from orange through gold to a ruby color. The palette so elegantly employed in depicting the two eggs joined together is deftly used to over paint the pinkish background thereby given a subtle visual unity to the painting. The suggestion of ‘joining’ provided by its title is helpful, but hardly necessary to enjoy the work.
An equally abstract but very different effect is evident the shimmering atmospheric composition Egg Stain III. Here a field of pale blue with hints of yellow wash provides the platform for five egg shapes in three distinctive clusters. The lower left frame truncates one egg whose rich blue center is framed by an arc of yellow. To the right, a light blue egg passes in front of a richly colored red one as if in eclipse. In the upper central register lies two eggs fused in a dramatic counterpoint. One is a brilliant blue and the other an intense red. They hold the eyes and create a sense of vibration between them. With exceeding economy, McFarlane has given us a painting that is arrestingly beautiful yet remarkably simple in its composition.
Perhaps the most adventurous of the Untitled works from the Egg Series is a 2008 canvas that echoes a still life composition. At the bottom of a largely yellow color field that has been scored and scratched with markings rests a pair of shapes that suggest a glass or beaker and an apple on a dish. These items are posed over an apparent table top that dissipates into the background. The apple mimics the reddish egg forms above it, and the blue of the beaker plays deliciously with a blue arc beneath the nearby apple, the blue fin of a playful fish in the center and the strong blue yoke of the egg in the upper right. These forms exists in an ambiguous space among numerous other floating balls and eggs. There is exuberance about the mélange arising from the almost childlike freedom in the use of colors, and the deliberate imprecision of the drawings. Some might see reminders of the work of early modernist Paul Klee.
Thematic and stylistic kinship exists between the Egg Series and several other paintings in the exhibition that are not expressly part of it. Demonic Gestation I and II, for example, probe reproductive or generative power. Gestation is the period that a mammal carries its embryo between fertilization and delivery. It is comparable to the period that the egg is incubated. Demonic means pertaining to the Devil or Evil. Both Demonic Gestation I and II are anchored by dominant central columns of densely clustered ovoid forms–cells, platelets, eggs– situated in atmospheric space. In Gestation I, the egg-like forms are bathed in red perhaps signifying blood. Given the often oblique way that McFarlane references the historical experiences of the black world, I suggest that these paintings comment on the long period of oppression under colonial powers from which the new nations of the Caribbean and Africa emerged to initiate the postcolonial era. This formulation accounts for the horrors of sustained containment under colonialism as well as for the birth of hope and promise in the young nations as they gained independence and prepared to take their places on the international scene. In such an interpretation, the bath of red recalls the violence associated with resistance movements as well as the violence that remains as a legacy of colonial degradation and exploitation.
Miscarriage and Rebirth, another painting associated with the theme of generative power, may also be seen through the prism of reflections on the history of colonialism. Here the imagery has largely moved away from the egg, except perhaps for a few floating globular forms. The reference to birth as the culmination of gestation, however, is obvious since the upper portion of the painting presents a vulva and hints of blood above what appears to be a kind of embryonic hairball. If the embryonic form is the failed birth, the reception vulva offers the opportunity of a new start. Translated as a political metaphor, McFarlane suggests that despite initial failures, many postcolonial nations are finding their democratic selves after sometimes calamitous initial efforts at nation-building. Ghana, where McFarlane traveled, comes to mind immediately. The cauldron of such painful birth and rebirth is suggested in Boiling III where McFarlane’s cluster of disks and egg forms erupts like a volcano into a red and fiery world.
Pyramids are a prominent motif in McFarlane’s art where they have richly overlapping significance. Sometimes the ancient architectural forms represent stability, endurance and tradition. But more often, pyramids recall the memory of colonial armies that subdued Africa and maintained colonial control over much of the black and brown worlds, especially during the nineteenth century. In such cases, the pyramid form is expressed as stacks of cannon balls. Such stacks were common in forts of the era.
In a conversation with McFarlane several years ago, he said that his travel to Turkey and China has deeply impressed him with the endurance of those civilizations. He felt that they had garnered something essential, fundamental, even eternal in there accumulated wisdom. After pondering how to honor that quality of the fundamental, and how to universalize its representation, he settled on the pyramid as an appropriate symbol. He realized that in one form or another type of architectural construction appears in virtually all early civilizations. Pyramids, while underscoring the strength of the triangle as our strongest building element, poetically capture human aspirations to reach skyward. They are widely viewed as icons evoking the mystical knowledge of the initiate to the sacred, of the grandmaster. Such metaphorical meaning informs Warm pyramid and Green pyramid where these primary structures and their reflections define larger environments populated with occasional orbs, and architectonic fragments suspended in fields of light.
A graver tone prevails in Black Brain and White Brain Pyramids and Big Pyramid with Ladder where cannon ball pyramids are shown. In the former, a shallow space rendered in a moody brown becomes the stage for many stacks of cannon balls and a pair of de-cranialized brains. Flanking a ladder that rises behind a central pyramid scratched onto the pictorial plane are a heart on the right, and heavy machinery–perhaps a cannon and cannon wagon–on the left. Though a strongly programmed iconography is not provided, the painting certainly questions how blacks and whites–the binary socio-political paradigm of the United States and the Caribbean–have thought about their shared history and the place of power (police or military might) within it. It begs for a sense of humanity symbolized by the heart, and visualizes a way forward as suggested by the ladder. Big Pyramid with Ladder, a work still in progress at the time of this writing, shares generally in the previously expressed interpretation although it gives greater prominence to a central dark pyramidal stack cannon balls (history) and a much larger image of the ladder (escape).
Silk Road to Pyramid also utilizes the pyramid as a symbol of history, but this time the history is McFarlane’s fascination with Asia, and in particular, with the famed Silk Road. Having spent time at both ends of the route–Turkey and China–he appreciates the genius and cunning that established and maintained this ancient trade and cultural link between the East and the West before the era of airplanes and electronic communications. In Silk Road to Pyramid, he expresses respect for its mystery and legacy, even as he partially hides the pyramids that indicate the way, planting them beneath numerous colorful orbs that may represent the stars that guided navigation and helped light the way.
Since he first came to China, McFarlane has been interested in bicycles and has added them as an important icon in his art. Although perhaps initially inspired by the spectacle of huge throngs of Chinese traveling by bike in its cities, he also reached back in his memory to bicycles as transport for policemen in his native Jamaica. This type of use of the bicycle is observed in an earlier series of works exhibited as :——————. In Death of Bicycles II and Death of Bicycles with Brain Tissue, more ominous notes are sounded. These works, painted in sober shades of umber, document the rapid change that has replaced bicycles with cars in less than a generation, and in the process, replaced healthy exercise with stifling smog and unhealthy exhaust fumes. The upper register of Death of the Bicycles II is populated with bicycle seats, tires and rims hanging like the votive offerings that McFarlane saw filling chapels of churches in Brazil. As those offerings expressed gratitude for prayers answered, these bicycles are also acknowledgments of progress toward less physically demanding transportation. Almost buried amid the bicycle fragments is a heart that perhaps captures a bit of the lamentation that accompanies change.
The urgent need to think about the meaning and management of change is underscored in Death of Bicycles with Brain Tissue where we encounter a brain amid an enormous stack of frames, seats, rims and tires from the once ubiquitous riding machines. The lighted brain, partially obscured, falls along a belt across the middle of the painting consisting of a red and green heart, a bicycle seat, a bike light and a smaller almost invisible heart on the far right. The overall presentation has aspects similar to a shrine, in this case, dedicated a passing moment in the haste of change, and to the need to rethink -and maybe memorialize–what it means in the life of people.
Several works of the recent years show McFarlane introducing new symbols into his work, and simultaneously moving toward greater emphasis on abstract elements in his art. In Heart of the Apple, for example, the apples become a major visual presence though accompanied by other fresh symbols including lips and hearts. A heart may also be noted in the previously cited Bicycle with Brain Tissue and Pyramid with Black and White Brains, as well as in Internal Anatomy II. Lips–specifically a woman’s painted lips– figure importantly not just in Heart of the Apple, but also several untitled recent paintings. Clearly sexual symbols have emerged in recent pictures such as the aforementioned Miscarriage and Rebirth with is overwhelming vulva and Environment without Traction where a smaller vulva may be found.
A tendency towards preoccupation with formal or abstract elements is evident in the previously cited Environment without Traction and other new works in which McFarlane has clearly given great attention to the pictorial surface. In Traction where a number of familiar motifs such as pyramids appear along with new ones, McFarlane has worked and reworked the surface, introducing scratching, scoring and other vigorous modes of marking. He has over-painted portions with the palette knife using color freed of representational obligations. As a result, our response to the painting is significantly influenced by textures behind the images. Fields of color unrelated to representational references reinforce the drift toward abstraction. Similarly, attention to the abstract possibilities of marking, scraping and scratching of the picture surface is also strongly evident in Mixed Feelings–Toward Traction where the imagery is less intriguing than the information that seems to be buried in the surface of the painting. Indeed, the intense light radiating from that surface renders the imagery almost translucent, heightening the abstract drama contained along its background.
Bryan McFarlane, using a combination of visual strategies accompanied by an evolving iconography that combines personal and collective symbols into a fresh system of meaning, is a contemporary artist of note. His work is grounded in his formative experience as a post-colonial Jamaican artist, but it is informed and broadened by his rapacious consumption of ideas ranging from folk wisdom to critical theory, and by his travel and exposure to different cultural, intellectual, economic and political environments. As he has digested his expanding experiences, he has reflected them in his art, giving it a cosmopolitan, international quality. His own sensibilities and talents, combined with hard work, have allowed him to bring both power and clarity to his work earning for him a place of merit in the international order of visual artists.
Edmund Barry Gaither
Director of The Museum of The National Center Of African Artists, Boston.
Adjunct Curator: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston