What colour is truth? There have been countless attempts to define it in various academic fields and philosophies without arriving at anything conclusive and always seeming to agree that as an abstract concept its dimensions and definitions are inexhaustible. In religions it has even been equated to god himself, and always with an understanding that image, likeness and colour are never truly known. As far as Islam is concerned, it cannot be known; whatever you think God’s image is, he is not that, and it is an offence to profess to depict him. For the ancient Greeks Plato equates god to truth and perfection, forever fixed and incorruptible and forever sought by man.
But the artists, who recognise no boundaries to what can be defined, always have a go at it. Poets have declared that beauty is truth and truth beauty; some say it is poetry itself. Dramatists have argued that it is hiding and lurking somewhere there behind whichever character and circumstance, but it is never what it seems. Painters seem to feel that it is art; it is what they always set out to paint and there may well be as many definitions as there are true artists. So what colour is truth? We are no closer to an answer and no one has ever seen it.
Yet the colour of truth was shown in an exhibition at the National Gallery in Castellani House in December 2008 and January 2009. It was a Janus-like show that brought one year to a close and opened the next one at that venue because it claims to show the unshowable, to depict what cannot be defined and to reflect on canvas what no one has ever seen. In addition, it is the work of two fairly new artists who, according to Curator Elfrieda Bissember, are for the future. One attempts “to leave the safety of proven, successful formulas in the search for more open-ended answers”; the other provides work “in the form of stylized drawings with personal and experimental ideas”; and together they have futuristic potential. “If allied to [their obvious] qualities is truthfulness and fidelity of purpose, a demanding but exciting career can be their reward.”
The Colour of Truth was the title of a joint exhibition presented by Castellani House at the National Gallery by painters Sandra Alleyne and Travell Blackman. The artists and the kind of work they attempt are best described by Bissember, as she does it in the introduction to the catalogue of the show. “Part of the National Gallery’s mission,” she writes, “is the promotion of contemporary art, which allows the institution to provide a network for and support of the wider community of practising artists.” Speaking for the Gallery, she continues:
“We are pleased to present the work of young artists such as Travell Blackman and Sandra Alleyne, both with strong links to the Burrowes School of Art (BSA), itself a significant cultural institution… founded in 1975 by Denis Williams, Guyana’s brilliant artist polymath… The school has proved a starting point for many a talented and indeed distinguished young contemporary artist…
“Travell Blackman is proving to be one of this number. A recent top graduate of the BSA and prizewinner of the National Watercolour and drawing competitions, he was early noted for his obvious talent by being accepted as a student two years below the minimum age of entry at the school. Travell has shown, by his steadiness of purpose and commitment to a level of well presented work, that he is possibly equipped for the long haul of a life of self-disciplined exploration and productivity, necessary benchmarks of a successful creative, indeed, visual artist. With the technical facility displayed in his years at art school still very much in evidence, he now bravely combines this valuable element of his work with an application of abstract idea, design and colour, in attempting to leave the safety of proven, successful formulas in the search for more open answers and results.
“Sandra Alleyne, providing supporting work here in the form of stylized drawings with personal and experimental ideas, has been both a leading student and valuable teacher at the Burrowes School… she completed the degree art programme at the University of Guyana, maintaining the recent links made, as a tutor, with Travell at art school, working together with him and others in the presentation of fabric and fashion design, as well as in the more orthodox pursuit of fine art.”
Alleyne’s suite of “stylized drawings” called Vines of Life, is a mixture of work in pencil on paper and coloured pencils with variations around the central image of a tree. There are recurring motifs of roots, branches and vines interspersed with human faces and eyes. Among the most interesting is a Medusa figure, a feminine face whose hair is the serpentine roots that fill the rest of the picture. In another the images of birds are visible. In the spaces between lines of vegetation and roots are beaks and the usual eyes, but with a variation, since the eyes sometimes appear as nipples on female breasts. This sequence continues in another in which a full female nude stands bound by the same serpentine vines or roots. At the same time her feet are roots and her hands branches of the tree.
These are the “experimental ideas” mentioned by Bissember, while her large paintings (244 x 120) acrylic on canvas, are more conventional studies in nature. In one, where the colour is more interesting, there are large birds of the Guyanese rainforest against a background resembling their natural hinterland habitat.
The show takes its name from the Colour of Truth series of eight paintings by Blackman in a mixture of acrylic on canvas and oil pastels on paper. The artist’s quest seems to be the depiction of aspects of truth and reality such as one in stark, disturbing images of the grotesque as in a face with pronounced veins and tears of blood. Another is a pretty female face but somewhat deceptive, since she has Medusa’s hair. Motifs reappear in some, such as the eye which is also a neatly cut porthole through which a green tree newly cut down and fallen is visible. There are pictures of apparent misery, one with another attractive female figure in whose body the portholes are cut. However, it is those in the suite with a medley of carefully juxtaposed colours which stand out as more interesting.
Those are the pieces that “leave the safety” of proven, conventions to “search for more open-ended answers and results” as described by Bissember. Others stay closer to the beaten paths such as the realistic but ironic August Feast in which cows amble across a dry, parched field with only peripheries of greenery. Two portraits of Holly and Aaron, obviously the artist’s parents, are done in an experimental cubist style which defines bone-structure and muscles of the faces.
The Colour of Truth exhibition is an effort by Blackman and Alleyne with the qualities and potential articulated by Bissember who adequately sums it up.
“The foundation of the work of these young artists is technical skill, enthusiasm and professionalism, and this they possess in reassuringly palpable measure. If allied to these qualities is truthfulness and fidelity of purpose, a demanding but exciting career can be their reward.”