Tropical landscapes are often “Baroque,” owing to their profusion, density, and prodigious vitality. For that reason, Caribbean author Alejo Carpentier once contended in an essay about René Portocarrero that Baroque art in much of Latin America is more than a mere visual language; it is, he claimed, an essential analogue for an elemental encounter with nature in the Tropics where there is a tendency to sensory overload, as the range of flora and fauna seem to extend ad infinitum. An existential consequence here for humans is often an immediate sense of the transformational character of all existence, which in turn leaves us unsurprised that scientist Charles Darwin would have unlocked the key to evolution while in an equatorial Latin American setting off the coast of Ecuador.
Frank Hyder’s striking paintings and/or multi-media installations trigger at once an experience of the engulfing style of Baroque art work in “nuestra América” and also an experience of the dense entanglement of natural phenomena in geographic sites near the Equator. The ceaseless intertwinement and concomitant camouflaging of forms in Hyder’s show is thus grounded both in culture and in nature simultaneously, as it provides a hybrid sensory experience that is charged aesthetically yet based in nature. One does not simply see the images of Hyder, but instead one enters into them as part of an installation, in which many paintings hang unframed from the ceiling (here we recall how Baroque art frequently challenged the actual borders between what is framed and what exceeds the framing). As such, spectators do not simply stand before these dynamic paintings and multi-media structures as they would a television screen, but are actually surrounded by them, so that the traditional “white cube” of the conventional gallery space is suddenly relegated to something like a mere “virtual reality” display of images with little bodily claim on us.
The physical experience of Hyder’s dynamic and imposing images gains momentum from the body’s journey through and around these artistic forms, as if we were pushing aside paintings like so many hanging branches in a tropical forest that allows no easy access, but rewards intimate contact. Yet the boldness of Hyder’s huge paintings, especially some of the intense portraits of indigenous heads, loom spatially in over life size scale like the Olmec heads from prehistoric Mesoamerica. These outstanding portraits confront us from afar long before we enter the dense thicket of interwoven images in an installation that then challenges us to look at things up close and in a protracted manner. A trip through this gallery, like a trek through tropical terrain, thus summons us from a distance and yet stimulates us to study things close at hand in order to disentangle the plethora of painted images, many of which are unforgettably compelling. Moreover, as Hyder reminds us in a recent artistic statement about his images, they contain a lament about what will be irretrievably lost if the irresponsible actions of certain governments that deny the fact of “global warming” are allowed to reduce the Baroque richness of tropical rainforests to the minimalist landscape of a desert devoid of its indigenous flora and fauna.
Just as his images address the threatened patrimony of humanity as regards nature, so Hyder’s art works also draw deeply on an artistic lineage from the last two centuries of both sides of the Atlantic. It is for example impossible to see these paintings of lively fish and dense forests without thinking of such French artists as Gustave Courbet, whose own mid-19 th century paintings helped to inaugurate early modernism, even as they also stood as a direct counter to the forces of modernization in the French countryside. Courbet showed nature lovingly at close range and with intricate details. Similarly, Hyder’s former professor, Neil Welliver, in turn transposed a later variation on the visual language of Courbet to the New England landscape, where he too depicted the local landscape with an intimacy that nevertheless implied larger concerns.
To view paintings of tropical forests (Selvas) in Latin America is also to recall the well-known paintings of them over the last few decades, for example, by Armando Morales of Nicaragua and José Gamarra of Uruguay. Hyder’s paintings and installation are a worthy addition to this notable genre of landscape painting that had few representatives before the 20 th century (only a few paintings by Frans Post in the 17 th century and Francisco Oller in the 19th century would serve as genuine antecedents). The works by Morales of tropical landscapes are also done in an experimental vein, because of the way that he collages pieces of painted canvas onto the main canvas, while using a type of loaded brush over-painting that heightens the prismatic play of color interaction in the tropics. Hyder’s paintings now form part of a key international dialogue with the tropical landscapes of Latin American masters like Armando Morales, even as Hyder’s works have also earned him a place in world history in relation to the voyages south by German scientist Alexander von Humboldt (who is well-known throughout South America as well as in Cuba for his study of the region’s biology) and French painter Paul Gauguin (the Peruvian revolutionary Flora Tristan’s grandson), who sought to revitalize Western art by injecting into it a large dose of non-Western cultural forms and their competing conception of nature.