Fierce Obsession

Annie Paul on My Jamaica: The Paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan

Judy Ann MacMillan

My Jamaica: The Paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan by Judy Ann Macmillan, with an introduction by Edward Lucie-Smith (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 0-333-99717-4, 155 pp)

 

Judy Ann MacMillan grew up in the Kingston suburb of Constant Spring with four Carl Abrahams murals in her family home, and made acquaintance with Albert Huie as a child. Abrahams was later hired to teach her drawing. Exposure to these foundational members of the Jamaican art scene had a formative influence on her, leading her when the time came to the vocation of painting. After studying at the Jamaica School of Art and then the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, Scotland, MacMillan returned to Jamaica in the late 1960s.

My Jamaica offers a retrospective of over 30 years of her work.It is important to point out from the beginning that MacMillan is a painter of the traditional kind. That is to say, “her aim is to render what she sees, and her motivations are a love of the actual processes of seeing, and also of trying to make an exact likeness.” If this sounds like a caveat, it’s because modern art trends have supposedly rendered the profession of painting à la Rembrandt, Vermeer, or Goya redundant, if not obsolete. Be forewarned, then, that if you enjoy this book and the paintings in it you might well be announcing your general lack of currency and modishness, thus running the risk of being dropped from your respective national gallery’s A-list.

If, however, like me, you enjoy good painting, and don’t give two hoots what the artistocracy thinks, this book is for you. Purely as a published object, My Jamaica is an exemplary book, for it has something for practically everyone. Those who can’t read will appreciate the sheer beauty of the volume — the sensuous tactility of the dust jacket, the impeccably reproduced artwork within, and the images themselves. Readers will enjoy all this as well as the engaging, informative introduction by renowned Jamaica-born art critic and poet Edward Lucie-Smith and the comments of the artist on each painting in the book. If you’re tired of tight-lipped artists who claim to be making earth-shattering work which, however, they can never discuss with you or anybody else, then Judy Ann MacMillan’s asides on her work will come as a refreshing and innovative departure.

The book is usefully divided into sections on women, men, still lifes, and landscapes; Rockfield, the artist’s country retreat in St Ann, is the fifth subject her brush has lingered on. MacMillan’s portraits of men are the most compelling, in my opinion, with her rendering of street people running a close second. The painting Lunatic stands out in its stark eloquence. MacMillan captures an almost mystic, spiritual quality in her subject, who looks totemic against the moodily barren white background, one arm upraised in what seems at once both mute appeal and commanding gesture. Though the figure of the lunatic occupies only a quarter of the painted space, it positively radiates an energy field that seems to emit vibrations far beyond the frame of the painting.

Mas Joe on Sunday, on the other hand, dominates three quarters of the picture space in his “black linen suit with gold brocade inserts”. Magnificently attired in hat and necktie for this day of worship, Mas Joe is radiant, glowing with an inner light that suffuses his face and shines from his eyes, which look directly at you. Again, MacMillan has captured in this painting something of the natural mysticism Bob Marley sang of, the ambient spirituality that lights up Jamaica like fireflies at night.

I first met Winston, a brooding Rastaman with tam and locks, at Jamaica’s Annual National Exhibition in 1993, and was glad to find him reproduced in this book, as he is one of the best examples of MacMillan’s formidable talent for portraiture. Painting the black subject was a challenge that art school in Scotland had not prepared her for. Like Albert Huie before her, this was something she had to learn on her own, though she had artists like Huie himself and Colin Garland to turn to for advice. How to paint the play of light on black skin remained for a long time an obsession with MacMillan, who was always on the lookout for willing models. This book allows one to see the gradual perfection of technique that takes place over the years between the 1970s and 1990s.

Reading Lucie-Smith’s essay along with MacMillan’s own comments on her work gives one a vivid sense of the practice of painting in this time-honoured and traditional way. Today it has become all too common for artists to work from photographs, a considerably easier task than painting live and direct from a subject either in studio or in situ. Far from being the remote artist secure in her ivory-towered fortress, MacMillan has always had to find a way to unobtrusively insert herself into the best position from which to paint her chosen subject. For a strikingly attractive white woman, this may not always be the easiest thing to accomplish. Her quest for the ideal vantage point has sometimes landed her in the middle of a river bed or in the interior of an orange-vendor’s shack, or at busy city intersections when she was doing her street people. MacMillan comments on the generosity of country Jamaicans who would wheel out food for her while she painted at her easel or, more unwelcome, clear the bush (including the vegetation she had come to paint) all around her hastily with machetes, “in the spirit of improving things” for her.

There is a great variety in MacMillan’s styles of painting. Her landscapes, as Lucie-Smith pithily puts it, are fiercely observed. Carriage Entrance, Spanish Town Cathedral is startlingly lifelike, an example of photorealism. The Old Poinciana on the facing page is whimsical and almost human in its gnarled asymmetry. Ash Wednesday is moody and abstracted, while in Ital Cookshop, Negril, you can almost smell the wood-smoke–flavoured food in the duchies. Her still life Ital Food, on the other hand, is light and fresh as the food itself, a vivid sketch of Rasta cuisine and aesthetics, while Summer Lunch, a fluidly rendered image of hardo bread and avocado pear, speaks directly to one’s tastebuds.

Although the historians of Jamaican art have only grudgingly admitted MacMillan into what they term “the mainstream”, she does belong firmly within a very strong painting tradition in this country which has been insufficiently recognised for what it is — an alternate stream of creativity neither interested, as Lucie-Smith points out, in “romantic Africanism” nor in the latest art fashions from the metropole. This tradition includes painters such as Albert Huie, Carl Abrahams, and Colin Garland, and, in the younger generation, painters such as Roberta Stoddart, now resident in Trinidad. Indeed, Stoddart’s portraits and studies of street people in Port of Spain are reminiscent in theme of MacMillan’s paintings of similar subjects in Kingston — The Mad Woman of Lady Musgrave Avenue and Ruby, the vagrant who took her payment for modelling in the form of a bath and a meal rather than money, for which she had little use.

While MacMillan has always had an enthusiastic following for her work, the response of the official curatoriat in Jamaica in recent times has been far less encouraging. Those not too familiar with the protocols of so-called modern art might well scratch their heads in puzzlement. Why such disdain for what can only be described as very high aesthetic and professional standards?

The short answer, to quote Lucie-Smith, is that making “paintings . . . in the traditional manner, with aspirations towards realism” is not a “contemporary” thing to do. In Jamaica, for instance, as elsewhere, there has been a bias away from what is described as simple representation towards expressionism and abstraction (among other genres), both considered aesthetically more virtuous. This has been compounded in recent years by the adoption of a rather simple-minded anti-market manifesto that crucifies the well-crafted work in favour of art that is consciously market-unfriendly — read unwieldy, rough, crude.

As Lucie-Smith once said in another context, the well-made work consequently finds itself accused of insincerity. In case mystified art lovers have been wondering, this is the reason for all those muddy, angry-looking, nondescript objects the Jamaica National Gallery has taken to showing in the name of art. Lost in all this is any sense of perspective. Much of this grandstanding serves the interests of a small in-group of artists who control the official art-producing apparatuses in the island. It should be possible to appreciate new and experimental forms of art-making without having to completely disavow more traditional methods.

Not surprisingly, this turn away from representation has lost the National Gallery its already small viewing public. No one in their right mind wants to go to a gallery and be looked down upon by artworks that seem to sneer and exclude you because you don’t have the right background to “read” or view them. Having failed to educate audiences to the changes taking place in notions of art and art-making, the Jamaica National Gallery is now undergoing an enforced “democratisation” process under its newly appointed executive director, Jonathan Greenland. With his frankly expressed ambition of bringing viewers back to the gallery, artists like Judy Ann MacMillan may yet find their work returning to official favour.

There have been several monographs published on Jamaican artists — a lavishly produced book of Edna Manley’s sculpture, for instance, another one on Barrington Watson’s work, and a recent volume on Albert Huie’s work, which also has an essay by Lucie-Smith. This last book was actually produced on the initiative of MacMillan, who felt that Huie ought to be honoured with a major retrospective of his work and a publication. The National Gallery not being available for such an exhibition, one was arranged at Devon House and hung by Lucie-Smith himself.

MacMillan’s book, too, was launched at Devon House, in grand style, with works from her book exhibited in the various rooms of this charming old house, whose atmosphere naturally enhanced the paintings on its walls. The difference between My Jamaica and its predecessors lies largely in its outstanding production values, something other publishers should take note of. At the same time, these costs have not been passed on to the book-buying public, who can acquire this sumptuous hardcover volume for little more than what they’d pay for most locally produced paperbacks. Regional publishers still have a lot to learn in this respect.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), February 2005. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.