Paintings shed light on island life

TIMOTHY CAHILL
Staff writer

In "Omeros,'' Derek Walcott's 1990 verse retelling of Homer's "Illiad'' and "Odyssey,'' the poet sets his story in the West Indies, a land where "sunlight moves like a cat'' and clouds "like loaves'' fill the sky. Along with the battles and wanderings of modern-day heroes, the book-length poem describes with stunning visual clarity the life of the islands where Walcott was born. So it comes as no surprise that his paintings, now on view at the University Art Museum at the University at Albany, have such a strong feel for light and mood.

Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992, in no small part for the mastery of "Omeros.'' Clearly, most of the interest in "Island Light,'' the exhibit of paintings by Walcott and Donald Hinkson, grows out of this literary success. When a master in one form works in another, the result is frequently an amplification of their particular genius. Michelangelo's poems have the same muscular passion as his art, just as American poet Elizabeth Bishop's watercolors show a similar deft intimacy as her verse.

Like Bishop, Walcott's painting rarely rises above the level of talented amateur. This is not to diminish his accomplishment -- committed amateurs often see things with a freshness long-steeped professionals no longer can see. But they usually don't spend enough hours with brush in hand to give their work that certain surefootedness that completes a work of art.

It's probable that had the two dozen oils, watercolors and gouache paintings at the university been painted by an unknown Trinidad artist, we would not been looking at them here. More's the luck. Walcott has a perceptive artistic eye, an engaging visual imagination, and the technical chops to express himself. He shows these strengths off best in his landscape work, represented by some half dozen oils and several watercolors of the land and sea that are suffused with an utterly appealing light.

Walcott's canvases are filled with color and a crystalline, optimistic brightness that suggests a never-ending love affair with sight. Probably because I had "Omeros'' and the Homeric epics in my head, the light in his oil paintings reminded me not of the Antilles, but the Greek islands.

As it turns out by looking at the titles, Walcott brings the light with him wherever he goes. Whether he's depicting bathers on the Massachusett's coastline or a cow standing in a pasture, Walcott gives his pictures the fierce, exotic warmth of the Aegean.

In a large painting like "Setting the Bait,'' for instance, he draws a connection between his homeland and that of the wandering Odysseus. Behind an anonymous fisherman on a small spit of land, he paints a great ship of a white cloud adrift in the azure, turquoise and ultramarine of the sea and sky. It could be a scene from the West Indies, or a moment of placid beauty glimpsed by the Greek hero between heroic escapades.

Walcott, who in addition to poetry has written several interesting stage plays, includes here several goauche and watercolor sketches of characters and scenes from his dramas. Walcott is less comfortable drawing people than he is the land, but the real interest in these storyboards is as documentation. Writers typically have a picture in their mind's eye of what their characters look like, and here Walcott's imagination is revealed.

The far-flung poetry of Walcott's work is contrasted by the more quotidian disposition of his friend, the watercolorist Donald Hinkson. Hinkson, who like Walcott lives in Trinidad, is much more rooted to his home island, where he chronicles the ever-changing nuances of its light and shadows.

If Walcott paints brightnesses, Hinkson is an artist of shadows. His scenes of beaches and palm groves and island houses that share the gallery with Walcott's have a weight that belies tourist-type images of the Caribbean. A consistent basso runs through Hinkson's palette -- his blues edge toward steel, his greens toward olive, his browns toward umber. There are few high notes in his work -- not much yellow or red -- and even his beaches are the dark duns of wet sand.

Hinkson's West Indies are chilly, the way the world looks when it's thrown in shadow by a solar eclipse. To a Northerner facing the onset of winter, it feels oddly familiar. What it lacks in exotic warmth it makes up for in a sense of credibility. You tend to believe what Hinkson's reporting, that some days in paradise are cloudy, others so hazy everything glares without sparkling.

In paintings like "Country Shop'' and "Caretaker's House,'' Hinkson captures a certain realist calm of life amid tradition and poverty. What's more interesting, though, is what he does with the light. His shadows alternate from inky dark to open in the same picture, producing a subtle effect of movement, as when the sun winks in and out behind a cloud.

In another series, Hinkson paints life beside the sea, not as beach-front idyll, but a place where the elements of wind, surf and tide are so close they're claustrophobic.

Here too, Hinkson pulls off some neat atmospheric effects, but one of these paintings, "Purple Clouds,'' also strikes the exhibit's most startling lapse.

A threatening sky roils the sea and pushes hard against a pair of buildings. The wind violently shakes a coconut palm. A passing thunderstorm? An approaching hurricane? Yet just as you get caught up in the moment's intensity, you notice that the laundry is hanging limp on the clothesline, not flapping wildly in the turmoil.

A neat trick, to be sure, or maybe just an unfortunate ambiguity in the artist's visual clues. Whatever, the painting dashes some of the reportorial faith you've invested in Hinkson. Still, it's a small sin in the end, taken against the painter's unexpected and compelling tale on island life.

First published on Sunday, November 8, 1998

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Derek Walcott

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