For his first solo show at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, Cy Gavin has painted a suite of five rapturous landscapes that channel the cries of condemned and enslaved bodies under the domicile of empire. Like Gavin’s earlier works, which depict the black body in motion, these are ‘portraits’ of landscape, which is to say that they don’t depict their pastoral subjects – a thrashing waterfall, a brimming surf, a dark grotto – as much as they enact the scene of recognition on which portraiture is usually predicated. Gavin’s canvases reimagine the encounter with the sublime as a transhistorical reckoning; here, the links between scenic possession, vision and progress are dimmed. What emerges within the shadows is the whole alluvium deposited by a colonial past that we, in its presence, are incapable of not seeing.
With Untitled (Gibbet Island) (2019), Gavin takes us to his father’s homeland of Bermuda, the small Atlantic island used for centuries to shuttle trade goods and the enslaved to the Americas. Gibbet Island is just off the coast of Bermuda, where runaway slaves were publicly ‘gibbeted’ – a brutal form of caged execution – or hanged. Gavin is an adventurous colourist, and this large, square canvas depicts the island as a dark, cavernous swamp. Purple swaths of paint suggest fern-like flora across the bottom half of the canvas. Flecks of ultramarine evoke hidden pools of water. A fiery orange stripe – a pigment Gavin uses in four of the five paintings on display – coats the upper fifth of the canvas. Gavin has cited in the press release his interest in Purkinje effect, wherein humans become virtually colour-blind under low levels of illumination. This dimness feels central to Gavin’s ancestral and colonial introspection; in the centre of the canvas, amid its nocturnal blues, something unexpected appears: electric blue paint and pink sand from Bermuda form a thick hovering abstraction – a shimmering mirage found only within absolute darkness.
The exhibition’s centrepiece is the huge (360 cm × 880 cm) Bash Bish Falls (2019), which depicts a cataract at the mouth of a gorge formed during the last ice age. The falls are located not far from the artist’s home and studio in Stanfordville, NY, in the south-western region of Massachusetts. Local lore has it that the falls were named after Bash-Bish, a Mohican woman who, accused by her friend of adultery against her husband, was condemned by her community, strapped to a canoe and pushed into the deluge. These falls were also the subject of at least two Hudson School painters, Asher B. Durand and John Frederick Kensett, who saw in their corner of the Berkshires a bountiful American arcadia. Their attempts reflect an attachment to realism. Kensett disinterestedly painted the rocks and ripples of this site, rubbing out its namesake so as to appeal to tourist trade – a vista folded neatly into scenery. The sheer size of Gavin’s Bash Bish, unlike these previous studies, overtakes the viewer, and the falls are rendered as one element in a vast panorama in which Gavin paints the towering rock formation abutting the falls, as well the deep Hudson valley as seen from it’s summit. In the hazy turquoise sky, another unexpected event: a moon made fire-red by the penumbra of an eclipse completes the portrait.
Gavin’s play of contrasts suggests that these spectral, nocturnal visions of landscape have more to them than our human sensory capacities allow for. He suggests a different form of communion with nature, one that undoes the territorial rhetoric of imperial dominion by showing us exactly where the threatened beauty of this world resides.
‘Cy Gavin’ runs at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York, until 14 April 2019.
Main image: Cy Gavin, Bash Bish Falls (detail), 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas, 3.6 × 8.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; photograph: Thomas Müller