At a certain point in their careers, most artists born in places far from the traditional art world capitals have to confront a question: Should they stay in their home countries, or move to Europe or the United States in hopes of landing on the art-world map?
Che Lovelace has witnessed plenty of artists opt for the latter in his decades as a staple of the Port of Spain, Trinidad, art scene. He gets it. “A decade or two ago, Trinidad would have felt isolated,” he tells me over Zoom. “Being somewhere far from the centers of art has always been part of the challenge of living here, which I feel is my place and where I want to work from.”
For artists like Lovelace, there’s a rare upside to the pandemic: The rise of Zoom and Instagram and the decline of travel have helped level the playing field. “This increasingly digital era has made it possible to interact with the world and be part of a larger conversation—to contribute from this vantage point,” he says. Case in point: the exhibition of brightly colored, vibrant paintings he just opened at the pace-setting Los Angeles gallery Various Small Fires, which marks his second-ever solo showing in the U.S.
In any other year, Lovelace wouldn't have been available the afternoon of our virtual studio visit. He would've been deep in the food, music, and dance of Trinidad's traditional week of Carnival. Maybe more than any other part of pre-Covid Trinidadian life, it's Carnival that Lovelace misses the most. At this point, Mas, as locals call the celebration, has influenced him so profoundly that it's become essential to his work.
There’s a core cast of characters to be found at Mas, portrayed by participants known as masqueraders. Lovelace is a committed masquerader—and more and more, in his studio, he’s found himself inhabiting Carnival favorites like the Blue Devil. “I feel that if I act out a character—perform that character, so to speak—I’m able to get closer to it to paint it in a more intimate way,” he says. “To pretend to be something is kind of to learn it and be it.”
For the past five years, Lovelace has worked out of a former U.S. Army base 20 minutes outside of Port of Spain, situated in a tropical sea of green. He initially felt, guiltily, that it was “too pretty,” and that painting in a space which had been headquarters to American soldiers during World War II might be the opposite of creatively stimulating. “I could almost feel the weight of that history,” Lovelace says. But it soon became liberating. Lovelace grew up in the rural village of Matura, but as an adult has lived only in urban or industrial centers. To be so fully surrounded by nature, Lovelace says, looking through a massive open-air window, “felt like a homecoming of sorts.”
It also coincided with a burst of color in his palette. Early on, Lovelace “resisted” working with bright colors. He worried they’d come across as “too easily Caribbean,” just like painting, say, a coconut or coconut tree. Since learning to transform those tropes, his work has become defined by them. Figures are central in many of his paintings, but Lovelace doesn’t see them as representational. The Blue Devils he depicts aren’t of the Mas or himself. “I’m always playing around with the different ways I can represent the reality of what I’m thinking about or looking at,” Lovelace explains. And the moment something transforms from figurative to something more abstract is one he’d like to “relive over and over.” In a way, he does: “I’m able to discover the figure anew every single time I paint it.”
Over Zoom, I was initially alarmed by how casually Lovelace maneuvered a selection of paintings he’d laid out for me to see on the floor. The rich surfaces of his paintings belie the unassuming way they’re put together: four boards repurposed from a local stationery distributor, taped together and then framed. The freedom of movement in his methods translates to a unique ability to capture movement on a still two-dimensional surface. “Poised on the border between Cubism and realism,” the New Yorker wrote of his first U.S. exhibition, at New York’s Half Gallery in 2017. “Lovelace doesn’t really belong to any school.”
But Lovelace has always been part of a community. Post-World War II, the Port of Spain art scene has thrived, and includes a growing legion of talented painters. Most of them are homegrown, but the island’s way of life and lush setting has also attracted the likes of Chris Ofili and Peter Doig, two internationally renowned artists who came from London in the early Aughts and never really left. Ofili leans on the island for his creative process—the Blue Devil has found his way into his paintings, too—and Doig is also active in the community. In 2003, he and Lovelace founded Studiofilmclub, which, for years, screened independent films free of charge.
While no one is going to the movies these days, the pandemic has allowed Lovelace time to finally finish works he started years earlier—it usually takes him a year and a half to complete one painting—and the show at Various Small Fires is an unusually thorough account of what Lovelace has been up to in his studio. When he finally sees it in-person—pandemic-related travel restrictions permitting—it’ll be just his third time visiting L.A. (He went twice as a young surfer.) But the artist is by no means a stranger to the U.S. Lovelace has visited New York at least once a year for decades now—long enough to have witnessed galleries make the shift from Soho to Chelsea. He shacks up at the most covetable of pieds-à-terre: the home of the art dealer Bill Powers and the fashion designer Cynthia Rowley.
It’s not that Lovelace hasn’t had the opportunity to show Stateside—let alone closer to home—over the span of his career. He simply isn’t too concerned with displaying his work, nor suffering the financial consequences. “Even with this space, I’ve been months and months behind on rent, and almost thrown out,” he says. He always finds a solution, whether it’s teaching surfing lessons or, currently, lecturing at the University of the West Indies. “I think you create a presence, you create something that has value,” Lovelace says. “I may not be getting cold, hard cash, but I'm getting a currency.”