When VNH Gallery opened in the Marais space formerly home to the legendary Paris gallery Yvon Lambert in 2015, founders Victoire de Pourtalès and Hélène Nguyen-Ban knew they had big shoes to fill. Over the past three years, the gallery has risen to the challenge, developing an ambitious program of solo exhibitions by international emerging and established artists. The gallery’s current exhibition, Devils’ Isle, is the first French solo show by American painter Cy Gavin, whose work will also be the focus of the gallery’s presentation at Independent.
Gavin, 33, is originally from Pittsburgh, but his lush, large-scale paintings often take their cues from the landscapes of the Caribbean, particularly his father’s native Bermuda. Often incorporating untraditional materials, including sand, blood, ashes, and, most recently, denim in lieu of canvas, his works have often featured loaded sites tied to Bermuda’s role as a key node in the transatlantic slave trade and the ongoing legacies of racism and colonialism in the present.
“[The paintings] envision the land of Bermuda as a sentient, Anti-Colonial agent”
–Cy Gavin, on his exhibition “Devils' Isle”
“The socio-political makeup of Bermuda has been a lens through which I consider colonialism at large and its enduring impact in both the Americas and in Bermuda,” Gavin says. “Jamestown, Virginia, and Bermuda were founded concurrently as England’s first permanent colonies in the New World. Colonial Bermudians regularly traded with the thirteen American colonies and were educated in American schools, though they did not join forces with the American colonies during the American Revolution. I consider both colonial periods in tandem as my paternal family is Bermudian, while I’m a US national.” Gavin describes the ten paintings in Devils' Isle as “envision[ing] the land of Bermuda as a sentient, Anti-Colonial agent, whose treacherous reef systems, turgid ocean currents, and harrowing weather phenomena hindered the progression of European vessels bound from Europe and Africa towards the Americas.”
As de Pourtalès describes, she first encountered Gavin’s work in an article in W magazine by Diane Solway, and immediately reached out. “I was curious about his personal palette, the brightness of the colors,” she says. “After long discussions with the artist, I thought his work should definitely be shown outside of the US. He created a very strong body of work [for Devils’ Isle], choosing to present contrasted and turbulent landscapes and seascapes.”
At Independent, the gallery will present three new works made over the last year. Unlike the works in Devils’ Isle, they are not specifically focused on Bermuda, but rather “hinge on the inseparability of mankind from the natural environment” more generally. These paintings, Gavin says, have a common “fixation on the pivotal points where land meets water as a fraught locus of transaction, transformation, and regeneration.” "Bather II" (2018), for instance, depicts a figure swimming in front of Clarence Cove, described by Gavin as “a site where tourists once anchored their yachts and would toss coins overboard. Local children, leaping off of the dangerous cliffs, would dive through the clear waters to retrieve the money as payment for the entertainment they had provided.”
In another new work, "Bather I" (2017), a wave, rendered as a kaleidoscopic field of bright orange, pink, green, and blue, appears to consume a body, visible only as legs sticking out from above the surface. As Gavin describes, the scene harks back to “the many European merchant vessels (bearing trade goods and the enslaved) that lay wrecked on the reefs surrounding Bermuda. Where a body is present it is often a stand-in for many bodies, ancestral groups and progeny bound together; it is not pictured apart from the environment as much as it is pictured as an embodiment of it.”