Male Nude on Chaise Longue, 1999. All images courtesy of 101 Art Gallery, Port of Spain, Trinidad/NYR Blog.
The late painter Boscoe Holder is known for his famous portraits of black Trinidadian women. But, perhaps, his true legacy lies in his erotically-charged nudes of men, most of which were not publicly exhibited and are, thus, not known to the general public during his lifetime.
The reasons for this are, perhaps, many. Trinidad and Tobago remains in many ways a remarkably taboo-filled society, notwithstanding its cultural rituals which are based on subversion. The idea of the male body being sexual and sexualised in almost the same manner as the female body is, for some, an uncomfortable reality.
Further complications arise given hegemonic notions of sexuality and sexual identity: gay, straight, bi and the normative claims which these paintings are not primarily concerned with in their quest for a truth.
Thus, many of the nudes are quietly held in private collections, for the private pleasure of their owners, much in the way secret longings and desires unfold behind closed doors. As such, the artist Peter Doig has lamented the lack of accessibility to them, in the context of a larger conversation on the lack of proper archiving of art works in this region. (Doig has provoked a response by editor and virtual part-time archivist Nicholas Laughlin).
Trinidad does have a lack of adequate archives for the output of its artists. But of course, this problem is not unique to Trinidad and Tobago. All over the world there are unknown treasures, waiting to be brought within reach of larger audiences. We may complain of the lack of proper archiving of these objects everywhere. For that is the nature of the beast: if not recorded, then how can they be encountered? And how do we know of great work's neglect, if the work is neglected?
But let us interrogate this further: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear the sound, does it make a sound? Does the tree even exist? This is the problem of Plato's allegory of the cave.
Does the fact that Boscoe's nudes are enjoyed in secret mean they do not exist? They have no merit? That they are "undiscovered"--to use that maddening, if not derogatory, term? Did the artist intend these pieces to have a special private relationship with those who see it? Or was he simply caving in to social pressures? Or made uncomfortable by them? Does the world need to discover all that is hidden? Why? For the democratic spread of beauty? Of culture? Of social commodities? Whose beauty? Whose culture? Whose social commodities? Or is art truth? Are these paintings truth? And thus, a justification in themselves? Then, does truth demand visibility to be true?
The politics of all of this is not simple. And there is no clear answer to any of these issues. For sure the exposure of Holder's work is, in my view, a good thing. But it is not a condition of the truth contained in the work.
Christian, 1976. Typically, only when Holder's male subjects are clothed do they look us in the eye.
And the work is clearly worthy of interrogation and debate.
These paintings are not simply representations of the human body. They are also subtle comments: with delicate elements of surrealism in the way limbs are proportioned just beyond the typical, but not implausibly so: thighs are made larger, arms bend ever so gently in unnatural ways. The issue here is not Holder's technical competence, but rather his feeling that the work was acceptable in its suggestion, if not the subject's form. There is something of Modigliani here. But something completely and utterly Trinidadian, even in its idiosyncrasy.
Also, the men in these paintings rarely stare at us directly. Faces look down, eyes glimpse to the side. When there is a direct gaze, the body is either covered or not visible. When naked and exposed, vulnerability, virility, strength and beauty is mediated, almost, by a kind of reticence: shame or fear or insecurity or insincerity. The tension in the pieces comes not just from their eroticism, but that palpable feeling that the paintings are unfolding behind closed doors. And we, like the painter, are intruding.