Hailing from the picturesque seaside town of Les Cayes, Haiti, conceptual painter Andy Robert has built a career on exploring notions of community. As a graduate of the prestigious Whitney Independent Study Studio Program, this assemblage and found object artist has depicted the human side of such monumental and important issues as the Flint Water crisis and poverty in exhibitions past. His latest series, Lakou: One Two Five currently on display at one of Hollywood’s avant-garde art meccas, Hannah Hoffman Gallery, this poignant collection delves into the ideas of heritage, society, and place. These intimate, heartfelt cityscapes and portraits connect the viewer to the Caribbean and its culture, people, and its tragic history.
Tying all of Robert’s brand-new paintings in this exhibition together is the concept of the lakou, a Creole word alluding to a free, self-governing, and autonomous property commonly found in the artist’s native Haiti. Ubiquitous examples of the lakou are the family house and the piece of land passed down through the generations, forever binding the youth to their ancestors. Due to the lakou’s ties to family identity, these homesteads cannot be sold and have the ability to firmly ground generations of islanders to a certain parcel of land.
Robert’s work in this exhibition reveals the evolution of the lakou and its place in modern city life. The show’s title pays homage to not only the past through the concept of the lakou, but to the present through “One, Two, Five,” Harlem’s street coordinates.
Lakou: One Two Five is bursting with fascinating highlights, such as Check II Check: A Livin’ Just Enough (2017), an alluring, evasive oil and pencil painting on linen. Here the viewer is only given the the slightest hints of the city’s signature neon signage amidst a sea of Robert’s Abstract Expressionist drips of sordid, muddy hues. These cascading globs of paint resemble pieces of used gum adhered to the canvas. Playing with this tension between abstract and representational painting, the artist portrays seemingly low-brow, mundane scenes through the lens of so called refined, high-brow abstraction. In its mid-century heyday, Abstract Expressionism was believed to be the purest method of painting as it did not rely on narrative or representation. This movement was celebrated as unadulterated devotion to form. It was completely autonomous, just like the lakou.
Yet another poignant piece in this exhibition is a painting dedicated to the memory of local hero Kenneth P. Thompson who sadly died from cancer last year. During his tenure as the District Attorney of Kings County, New York, Thompson was a strong advocate for minority communities, known for ending the persecution of low-level marijuana cases. Remembering Ken: Kenneth P. Thompson (1966 – 2016), is a symphony in swirling, cool pastels and rich mahogany tones. Also, this thoughtful, somber piece inhabits the middle ground between abstract and figurative painting. With its thick globs of impasto paint and somewhat recognizable human forms, this piece defies expectations by exploring the world outside these narrow, autonomous artforms. By blending these two worlds together, Robert also unifies centuries of western artistic tradition with a modern story of inspiration and justice. This union of abstraction and figuration can also be found in Smoking Gun, a 2017 oil and pencil painting seemingly depicting a man wearing cowboy boots and carrying a musket. His face and body are blurry, comprised of several Seurat-like brushstrokes. Always mysterious, Robert’s work may feature elements of colonial history, but it somehow still feels relevant and current, therefore the viewer may have trouble contextualizing these images in place and time.
In 2017’s Cross Country D, we see even more of ambiguity and marriage of forms with a collage of over two dozen smaller square and rectangular spray paint, acrylic, and oil paintings stretching from floor to ceiling. The viewer once again finds themselves drawn to Robert’s lush, gestural strokes in shades of turquoise, navy, and baby blue. The coloring here is reminiscent of inviting tropical waters while his pencil drawings hinting at lettering and signage peek through the paint, offer references to city life. Fitting together like puzzle pieces, several of these smaller paintings feature independent compositions, while others spill over into neighboring canvases. Perhaps this design choice represents the self-sufficiency of the lakou or a metaphorical map of different neighborhoods, regions, and nations close to the artist’s heart. With its layers of paint possibly alluding to layers of cultural identity, Robert’s enigmatic, mosaic-like images seem to offer a fragmented view of Harlem, but highlight the beauty of community in its traditional and contemporary form.
Lakou: One Two Five allows Andy Robert to act as a modern-day cartographer, mapping his canvases and making paintings that reflect on the legacy of a colonial past. This exhibition is a collision of worlds, indigenous and metropolis, past and present, helping the viewer think about community and autonomy.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.