Caribbean Art: Trinidad, From the Streets

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - May 7, 2015

Above: Fass, Paul Kain

By David Cave
CJ Contributor

Paul Kain’s From the Streets (2015) : The Absence of Pretense

The 27 pieces of Paul Kain’s latest exhibition at Soft Box Gallery hit you; like someone smacking you to the floor and then picking you up from under your jaw, staring into your puckered (maybe also bleeding) lips and bewildered eyes and demanding that you take a closer look at them.

Kain’s From the Streets is an unapologetic view of the pathos that exists in urban Trinidad.  It is a vista into a harsh reality; an existence that is omnipresent, but somehow unseen, because it is the reality that Trinidadians don’t want to display in their tourist brochures, and also don’t want to show themselves as they strive to attain a nebulous foreign-influenced idealism that could look more like an HGTV-renovated house in Miami.

This is the quotidian, banal Trinidad that anyone who takes a maxi-taxi to work every day witnesses; the conversations, the inter-personal exchanges, the scenes that are seen by some, whether one wants to see them or not.  It is this lack of choice that Kain asserts on the viewers of his latest body of work.  Kain’s art also displays the  extensive desperation and gross inequality that currently defines Trinidad and Tobago Society.


Above: CEPEP

In the statement that accompanies the catalogue, the artist points out that that this latest amalgamation of art, “is a body of work based on the observation and interaction with individuals whom I had the opportunity to become acquainted with while holding an evening shift at a mini mart in St. James”.  Kain, through this modest vocation, which also served as the means to acquire the necessary cannon fodder for his hard-hitting art also goes on to add that, “The hours spent there were filled with the ritual visits of the local shoppers, vagrants, pipers and limers whom upon their sporadic visits were also accompanied by their colourful elaborated stories from their home life to their sex life, to the tension of political views where everyone has the answer and the solution”.

The mastery in Kain’s art lies in the exquisite manner in which he, as an artist, succeeds in articulating this amassing of human interaction into a series of readable images.   This artist’s work has a sufficient degree of directness and honesty to appeal to the typical layperson.  CEPEP is a clear example of the straightforward and unambiguously elegant simplicity with which Paul Kain engages the viewer.  The human figure clad in an orange safety vest and 3/4 pants is almost faceless, but somehow engages the spectator with the expression of the mouth.  Could this be a frown, or an expression of grit and determination?  We are not sure, and we may never conclusively know.  One thing we are certain about is that this is a menial and therefore unenviable occupation, but one that many people in Trinidad have to pursue in order to survive.


Above: Woman at the Anthurium Door

Other works in this exhibition maintain their efficacy in being easily understood, but there are other pieces that also possess a more cerebral dimension.  Woman at the Anthurium Door possess strong references to the gilded paintings of Gustav Klimt with the torso of a female figure framed between two French doors decorated with images of Anthurium flowers.  Her chin is raised, her hair coiffed and her face is plastered with make up to the extent that it is now a lighter shade than the rest of her body.   Part of the  accompanying text for this piece reads, “Appearance is everything you know…”, indicating this woman’s obsession with the superficial visage that she presents to her environment.

The irony is that the fixation with surface forms the antithesis of what Kain’s body of work is really about, because like the layers of an onion, the interpretation and decoding of these paintings requires the spectator to reveal the meanings in a layer by layer fashion.  Fass enables the viewer to experience this incremental form of revelation.  In this painting two children at the centre stand on a chair in order to peer over the wall.  Clearly there is a strong allusion  to childhood curiosity.  Added to this inquisitiveness is the little dog in the right corner, trying desperately to also get a peek at what the children are witnessing.  This is where the morbid dimension kicks in as the focus of their attention is a figure hanging from a tree.

This uneasy duality between idealistic innocence and the disturbing aspects of our reality truly encapsulates life in present day Trinidad.  Kain’s work does not offer a purely dystopian view of his homeland.  This is because Fass still possesses some aspects of the stereotypical Caribbean life: the clear blue sky, the companionship enjoyed by the two children and the dog.  However, the subtle juxtaposition of death, possibly by suicide, strongly hints at the despair and dysfunction that is equally omnipresent.

Transactions (Bubbles) now steers the viewer towards the prevalence of prostitution in urban Trinidad.  Although still illegal on our law books, this practice enjoys a significant amount of ubiquity here.  It is at this point that I choose to draw close parallels between Kain and the early 20th Century French artist Georges Roualt (1871-1958).  In The History of Modern Art by H.H. Arnason, it is pointed out that, “Roualt sought subjects appropriate to his sense of indignation and disgust over the evils permeated by bourgeois complacency that, as it seemed to him, permeated society.  The prostitute became his symbol of this rotting society” (105).  Roualt’s Prostitute Before Her Mirror (1906) is a notable attempt to add a human perspective to those on the fringes of society.


Above: Transactions (Bubbles)

Paul Kain’s work, on first viewing appears to offer a distorted and dark vision of Trinidad, but as one spends time with these pieces and delves into them, the images engage your psyche and reward you with further significance.  Even the presentation of the work, with the simple or rudimentary framing, or lack thereof, insinuates that these images could be posters merely stuck or hastily adhered to a wall or lamp post; thus giving the work a more street-like authenticity.

The serious undertones of this latest body of art by Kain make it clear that he stands by his assertions against what is wrong with Trinidad.  He is not sugar coating anything and smothering this country’s societal ills under the quaint and conjured ghetto-chic that is also, unfortunately, so abundant in our art today.  The figures in Kain’s paintings, although destitute and marginalized, still have not been robbed of their humanity.  Unlike Kain, the Trinidad and Tobago Society has not been so kind to these people.

From the Streets continues until 23rd May at Soft Box Studios in Port of Spain.

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