In the 1960s, artist Bendel Hydes was painting images of Cayman homesteads, often with a touch of impressionistic foliage on the edges. By the mid-2000s, he was covering huge canvases with layers of oil paints, creating abstract paintings that have a glowing quality.
The journey Hydes took along his artistic path is recounted in a new show that opened Friday at the Cayman Islands National Gallery. ‘Bendel Hydes – A Retrospective’ runs through 30 Jan. 2020. Hydes, who recently moved back to Cayman after years of living in New York City, was on hand for the members opening Thursday evening.
Gallery director Natalie Urquhart said the exhibit has been in the works for some time.
“We’ve been discussing a retrospective with Bendel for several years,” Urquhart said. “The exhibition is one element of a much larger project.”
The larger project includes a 200-page catalogue with plates of a similar number of works, along with scholarly articles by William Helfrecht, exhibition co-curator, and Dr. Veerle Poupeye. Hydes’ exhibition history, biography and career timeline are also included.
Hydes is known as the father of Cayman art due to the attention his work has garnered during his career. He was the first Caymanian to study art at a university abroad, attending Liverpool College of Art and, later, Canterbury College of Art, in England. Seeking a more intellectual approach to art and ideas, he transferred to Clark University in the United States, where he studied international relations and philosophy, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1976.
While other college students of the time received support from the Cayman government to study abroad, art was not considered a practical pursuit. Hydes had to make it on his own. He also had to leave the island to have a career.
“He couldn’t practise here,” said Urquhart, adding that in those days, one had to be in a major city with a vibrant art scene to gain attention. “Even now, at this level, it’s difficult to be working in the Cayman Islands,” she said.
For years, Hydes lived and worked in New York City, moving there in 1982. But his ties to the island remained strong.
He founded the New Inn Theatre, based at the Holiday Inn, which eventually became the Cayman National Cultural Foundation. He was one of the original board members for the National Gallery and was instrumental in bringing the vision of a standalone facility for the gallery to fruition.
“He’s really put the Cayman Islands on the map artistically,” Urquhart said.
In a news release, National Gallery chairwoman Susan Olde said it’s hard to underestimate Hydes’ impact.
“He is undoubtedly our foremost contemporary artist and a figure who has worked tirelessly to raise the profile of the visual arts within the Cayman Islands for nearly half a century,” Olde said. “He has provided inspiration to generations of Caymanian creatives and paved the way for the thriving art scene which we enjoy today.”
Hydes’ work has been featured in the National Gallery on numerous occasions, but a retrospective had never been done until now. Urquhart said she wanted to show visitors not only Hydes’ progression from representational pieces to abstract images, but to use that transition as an example of how abstract art evolves.
The early works are displayed in the gallery’s Dart Auditorium and show Hydes’ movement from early watercolours of Cayman cottages to impressionistic paintings of such things as breadfruit among foliage.
In the main gallery, the work progresses to more abstract forms as Hydes began experimenting more with colour and form. But even as the images become less conventional, there remains a hint of their origins.
“He never really loses that tropical connection and influence,” Urquhart said, walking past paintings that feature colourful background washes with geometric and loosely defined forms in the foreground.
One series of paintings is a combination of what seem to be aerial views of unidentifiable islands, overlaid with elements of cartography. The pieces are from two series Hydes did that are tied thematically to Cayman’s nautical history.
“He’s looking at the journey of that turtle fisherman in all this work,” Urquhart said.
From there, the work steps into full-on abstract work.
In the exhibition materials, Hydes describes his perspective.
“Through painting and other media, I use abstraction to explore the interaction of nature and culture reflecting on both the rational and ritualistic concerns of perceived opposites,” he says.
In his artist statement on his website, he describes the effect he is trying to achieve.
“I employ a vocabulary of semi-figurative, biomorphic shapes and symbols to address issues such as isolation, vulnerability, beauty, topography and the character of place,” he writes. “Ultimately, I strive to traverse the boundary between physical abstraction and emotional reality, thus forming the narrative that binds the work together.
The narrative of the exhibit ends with what Urquhart calls Hydes’ luminous works, large-scale oil paintings that are created by repeated layering of paint overlayed with soft obtuse forms.
“They’re almost three-dimensional works,” Urquhart said, due to the layering. “It’s like looking into one of the most beautiful sunsets you’ve ever seen. These are like huge stained-glass windows in a house of worship. There’s a very spiritual element to the work.”
The works dominate the centre room of the gallery and there are benches for visitors to sit in what Urquhart hopes will be a contemplative space. She hopes people will not only consider the work itself, but Hydes’ importance to Cayman.
“Bendel blazed a trail for any creative person from Cayman,” she said.