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Working notes: On Christopher Cozier’s Tropical Night drawings
By Nicholas Laughlin
published in the catalogue of Little Gestures: From the Tropical Night Series, an exhibition at the Jaffe-Friede Gallery,
Hopkins Centre, Dartmouth College, 2 October to 4 November, 2007
early days sitting in the water and watching the horizon and looking
backwards to the edge of the island and wondering about the space in
the water . . .
Almost one whole wall of Chris’s studio is a big wooden door that opens
to the east, to the first morning light, and a view of a lawn, some
small trees, the road below, and a forested ridge above. Another wall
is covered by two huge drawings, from a series he worked on a few years
ago. The third wall is lined with untidy bookcases, disgorging art
books and catalogues, and dusty hardbound volumes of classic West
Indian novels discarded by a library in Port of Spain, their spines
still tattooed with Dewey decimal call-letters. On the fourth wall,
dozens of evenly spaced pushpins make a sort of grid. Sometimes the
grid is filled with small drawings hanging from clips. Sometimes the
wall is mostly empty.
A big table sits right across the doorway. There is a strong lamp
suspended above, and a tall stool pulled up alongside. On the table
there are bottles of ink, tubes of paint, jars of brushes; a telephone,
scraps of paper with phone numbers, names, lists; a bowl of coins from
many countries, a row of ornate old-fashioned soft-drink bottles—Solo,
Ju-C—and all sorts of odds and ends and strange objects, some of which
may be artworks or fragments of artworks; and, on the only patch of
clear surface, a stack of paper six or seven inches high.
Apart from the tall stool near the table, there are three old kitchen
chairs, which came from Chris’s parents’ house in Diego Martin. There
are boxes in the corners, some labelled (“Unsorted Mail”), some
anonymous. There are small shoals of CDs, bits of discarded clothing—a
purple sock—and what look like scraps of lumber. There are paintings
and drawings in frames, stacked facing the walls. There are children’s
toys, strayed from the rooms of the house above.
Several times over the last year I’ve visited the studio to look at the
ongoing series of drawings Chris calls Tropical Night. Sometimes the
drawings—each about nine by seven inches, on thick paper—have filled
the pushpin wall. Sometimes they are stacked on the table or stool.
Say seven by seven by nine inches, the stack of paper: a solid object.
It has real weight. It casts a shadow. Chris talks about exhibiting the
drawings like this: piled up, face down. The longer I stare at the
stack, the more it looks like a piece of minimalist sculpture, a cuboid
with ridged edges stained with brown ink.
When the time comes for me to leaf through the drawings, Chris usually
finds a reason to leave the studio. I turn the drawings over like pages
in a book. Each time, the order has changed. Human figures, maps,
birds, the sea, walls, benches, limbs, numbers. Some of the drawings
have become familiar. Some are variations on ones I’ve seen before.
Some are entirely new. The new drawings shift the narrative, as it
were; I thought I’d put a story together, but now there are fresh
meanders in the stream of consciousness. I don’t, after all, know where
this is going.
“It feels like saying something twice, or again the following day in
another conversation, and realising some connection or what the idea
was really about.”
I am sitting in one of the kitchen chairs in the studio, sipping from a
cup of milky coffee, staring at the pushpin grid on the wall in front
of me, and listening to Chris. Words spiral and spool, as he plucks
anecdotes from his capacious memory, pinches together recollections and
observations and insights, facts from yesterday’s newspaper with
One of Chris’s favourite words is “conversation”. He uses it in every
third or fourth sentence. But in my conversations with him I find I
mostly listen. Partly because I’m caught up in the swirl of his words
and ideas, and don’t want to interrupt. Partly because his intense and
effortless verbalness leaves me feeling wordless. Images are supposed
to be his medium, words mine. So why does he find it so easy to spin
his phrases and lyrics, why do my own sentences feel like knots of
barbed wire in my throat?
The writer, like the artist, works in a small room crowded with strange
objects. He sits at a low, square table, painted brown. The table faces
It is early morning, and the light is still soft. The writer, like the
artist, sits and stares at the sheet of paper before him: empty, white.
In his hand he holds a pen.
Making ink-marks on a sheet of paper: that, it has been said before, is
what artists and writers have in common. But this morning the writer
does not know where to start; or, rather, how.
In his hand, the very slight weight of the pen—Sanford Uni-Ball Onyx,
fine point, blue ink—is a gesture both familiar and strange. The pen is
both a comfort and a taunt. And the empty, white sheet of paper is a
prism through which the writer peers into a dark-filled, light-filled
space that, this morning, looks completely empty.
“I like to draw. Drawing is my handwriting, and my thought process.
“I often use the word ‘note-taking’—note-taking to me is conceptually
very important. It’s a process of investigation, of speculation, of
questioning. It has to do with notions of being sure and notions of
being unsure. There’s a kind of instantaneity in that moment of
reverie, of thinking. That’s the free space I’ve created for myself.
But at the same time, the fact that these are just simple thoughts on
simple pieces of paper means that to be speculative isn’t weakness.
Speculative is openness. It’s a domain of possibility.
“When I make those marks, there’s a sense of being alive.”
The iron fence of a now-demolished colonial mansion, its palings
sprouting fleur-de-lis finials. An athlete’s podium, its one-two-three
steps irrefutably defining degrees of victory. A cash register with
empty drawer lewdly gaping. Women in white high-heeled shoes. Men
peering over walls. A man embracing nothing, embracing an empty space
where something should be, the exact shape of another body. Tufts of
bright green grass springing from the blackened earth of a burned hill.
Who is inside? Who is outside? Who is stepping out, or up? Who is
stumbling in, or down? What happens next?
—Something’s worrying you about these
—The same thing that worries me about these notes I’m trying to write.
It’s the matter of having to explain. To elucidate.
—To elucidate is to “make clear”….
—But “making clear” is the opposite of what the drawings seem to do—the
prevailing murky browns and greys are like a tonal metaphor. But I also
mean something else. Something like what Chris means when he asks if
the work has “readability on its own merit”.
—The burden of narrative?
—No. What you might call the burden of context. The burden of history.
The burden of being from a place—it’s tiresome to keep saying this, but
even more tiresome that it’s true—from a small, peripheral place where
individual sensibility is trapped on all sides: by ideologies, by
national “culture” narratives, by stereotypes—by that whole tangle of
expectations about what it means to be an artist from and in the
—But the subject matter of the
drawings is unavoidably “from and in the Caribbean”—it’s the sometimes
mundane, sometimes crazy everyday of an individual living in Port of
Spain and immersed in all the elements of life in the
twenty-first-century urban Caribbean—all those elements processed into
what you’ve described as a visual stream of consciousness….
—Yes, but must the elements of that stream, that consciousness, be
annotated for an audience outside that twenty-first-century urban
Caribbean context? And in the absence of such annotations (which I’m
not interested in providing), can that audience—will they—respond to
lines, shapes, colours, tones, the immediate sensation, the “brown”,
the mood, the mystery?
—And your notes?
—Don’t explain anything. Don’t come to any conclusion. Merely describe
my own hesitant, indecisive experience of the drawings—looking at them,
puzzling over them, talking to Chris about them.
—And you worry….
—Whether that is enough. Whether the notes themselves have any
“readability”. If I had any talent for fiction I would write a short
“There are narrative passages. There are moments when I see a path, and
I try to run it down.” But: “Sometimes I don’t want to prescribe the
The reading. That is my urge: to “read” these images, like a story,
like a book.
Maybe it’s the “bookness” of the stack of drawings, sitting there like
an unbound novel, with the patience of a book. (A book will wait five
hundred years, then a reader opens it and the words unfurl fresh as
Maybe it’s the lines of text, in Chris’s ornate scrawl, that embroider
the drawings, not naming or explaining, but reaching, it seems, for
their own plotlines.
Maybe it’s the many hours I’ve spent talking with Chris, or listening
to him—maybe they’ve convinced me that he has something like the
sensibility of a novelist, taking in and storing away every detail,
penetrating into the deep psychology of things and places and people. A
poet’s instinct is to pare away, a novelist’s is to pile up, pack in,
fill the room of the imagination with as much furniture, as much
equipment, as much apparatus as possible.
Or maybe the “book” I’m trying to read is a reference work: a
dictionary, or an encyclopedia, scrutinising the world, imagining its
complexities into small constituent fragments, holding each fragment up
to the light, describing it from many angles, enquiring after its
pronunciation, its derivation, its possible and impossible uses.
I look up and for a moment it seems the images in the drawings have
taken three-dimensional form and are populating the studio.
Near-invisible lines of trajectory connect object to object, and object
to image on the pages in my hands. I am caught in this web, and the
whole room is washed in sepia ink.
I close the “book”.
My eyes readjust and once again I see chairs, bottles, boxes, scraps of
The stack of paper sits on the only patch of clear surface on the
table, jostled by jars of brushes.
I am thinking: Do these drawings “rhyme”? Do they have a “rhythm”?
Searching for sweetness in the
darkness across the sea
“The texts on the drawings are written free-form. Sometimes there’s
spelling mistakes, grammatical mistakes, and things repeat, because the
idea is a kind of associative writing, a rambling, that I then place in
the context of the drawings.
“I’m never sure if they’re explanatory, or if they’re sort of parallel.”
I realise that the drawings cast into clearer relief a certain literary
quality of Chris’s entire oeuvre.
I don’t mean just that he’s a practising critic. I don’t mean just that
his works on paper, even at their most cryptic, almost always have a
strong sense of narrative. I don’t mean just that his groundbreaking
early work, Conversations with a
Shirt Jac, was in effect a soliloquy; or that his sound
installations seem to play with elements of performance poetry; or that
text—actual writing, the physical shapes of words—recurs through his
drawings. I mean—and I’m trying to understand—something about his mode
of thought, the way Chris experiences and understands the world. His
mode of thought seems essentially that of a writer. He has what I think
of as a writer’s intense self-consciousness, a writer’s obsession with
translating the world into words to keep the world from disappearing
(as it ultimately must). Drawing is his note-taking, he says, but I
suspect he also has that voice in his head that never stops detailing
and describing, converting sensory facts into words and those words
into sentences, so that each day is an epic novel of the mundane that
will never get written, and memory is a series of inaccurately recalled
quotations, and these drawings are snapshots from a stream of
consciousness, from an unresolved state of being.
An autobiography composed from metaphors.
A visual dream-diary. Of waking dreams.
There is a kind of bibliophile’s parlour game in which you arrange
books on a shelf so that the sequence of titles on their spines tells a
You might do something similar with the titles of the individual
drawings in the Tropical Night
Feathered Bat Descending. In the
Dance. Hop Skip Jump. Jump Up. Shot Call. Flight.
Coming and Going. Immersed in
Oxford Journey. Castaway. New World.
A Next Day. Sitting Here Watching.
Open Seas. Day In, Day Out.
After the Fire. Crown. Thorns. Bird
Stress. Air. The Hills. That Tree. The Hunger.
Another kind of narrative. Another way, perhaps, of not seeing the
thing at hand, the marks on the piece of paper before me.
“The word ‘literary’ could imply or require a narrative pursuit, and
that may limit me or demand a purpose or some kind of accountability. I
do not really want to have a way through this, or an idea of a way. I
feel adrift, a bit lost, and I am looking for and at signs. I do not
want to frustrate the viewer. I am searching for empathy.”
A white wall covered with a grid of evenly spaced pushpins is a map
waiting to be drawn.
A blank sheet of paper is an airless room waiting for a conversation to
When Chris first gave me scans of some of the drawings, I put them in a
folder on my desktop called “Brown Drawings”. Maybe he used this term
casually in some early conversation. Maybe it was the first thing that
came to mind when I made the folder, more than a year ago—the label
that my semi-conscious mind grabbed at to distinguish these from his
Many of the drawings are literally “brown”, composed largely in washes
of sepia ink. Some are not. This is obvious. This is the artist’s
prerogative of medium. It is also obvious that the “brown” is, more
meaningfully, a mood. The dark brown of dried blood—
“the imagery as it
unravels always seems to be in this dark, this dark murky space in
which we are searching for light”
—or the weary brown of an old photograph, but not the kind of photo
that inspires nostalgia, like an old black-and-white snapshot of a
Carnival costume from the 60s or 70s, and looking at it you feel the
dust and hot sun of that moment, the weight of the costume and the
stickiness and the head-pounding noise, and you’re glad you’re not
there; it might even be a moment from your own past that you’re glad
you don’t have to relive. Or just a meteorological brown—
“a mood or tone I
often feel on a dreary day, waiting for a taxi before it rains or going
to some kind of daily routine”
—a tone of spirit familiar to anyone who grew up in the tropics, a
brown found only in this climate, like a film of dust over the bright
blues and greens and yellows that are supposed to be the exemplary
colours of the tropical landscape; the gloom of that “shadowed space
that is not between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. with intermittent clouds.”
The murky brown of a situation or a frame of mind when the silt of too
many memories and expectations leaves your thoughts stranded in mud.
You stare out the window at a clean blue sky, or you stare down at a
clean white page, but all you really see is the brown haze of not
having an answer or not knowing what to do next. A brown dry-season
night on a street in Belmont or Woodbrook when you can’t work up the
enthusiasm to leave the house. The brown at the bottom of a cup of
coffee, when what seemed like the morning’s fresh clarity turns out to
be the same stale fog of last night.
(But “brown” is never an innocent word in this melanotic part of the
world, as Chris will soon remind me.)
The writer flicks from one page to another to another, the images
springing out at him in a random sequence that yet, gradually, begins
to suggest there might be a pattern. To stop or to slow down is to risk
a kind of giddy paralysis. He flicks from one page to another like a
man hopping from one unsteady pile of books to another, keeping his
balance only through constant motion, and only the brief ballast of his
weight, descending momentarily again and again, keeps the unsteady
piles of books from toppling. To stop or to slow down is to risk
Chris talks about the drawings as “small incremental gestures”. What
will these increments add up to? Sketches of each day’s ramblings that
might be assembled into a map of the world? Or numerous modest,
tentative attempts at answering what, from a few steps back, might look
like one monumental question: What am I doing here?
What am I doing? The work of every serious artist: curious, anxious,
urgent. Inventing names and symbols. Searching for patterns. Searching
for sensuous forms that might communicate some private experience or
apprehension of the world. A world waits to be known and felt and
understood. There is never enough time.
And the special predicament of “here”: twenty-first-century Trinidad, a
small, confusing post-colonial, post-everything space, “a world with
two coups, murders, kidnappings, wrought iron, queen shows”. Those of
us who inhabit this “here” navigating blindly, by instinct, on ground
still incompletely charted. (We were the land’s before the land was
ours.) And those looking from outside distracted by five hundred years
of expectations about what the Caribbean is or ought to be.
Those walls pierced with breeze-blocks. Those women in Carnival bikinis
and high-heeled shoes. That little metal “geometry pan” that every West
Indian child carries to school, containing compass, divider, ruler.
Fragments of un-epic memory, personal and cultural. But what will they
look like to someone outside that culture? Are they too “local”? Are
they “local” enough? Are some kinds of “local” more or less “local”
than others? Who gets to name the names? Who gets to define the
“Who owns sadness? Who owns introspection?
“The question is whether I have a history or not.”
“Many of these islands were not supposed to be ‘societies’ to begin
with, after the period of conquest and plunder. We were never supposed
to be ‘individuals’ either.
“Often when I
sit in my studio and make a mark on an empty piece of paper trying to
imagine, dream, or figure out something, it feels odd, as if I am
boldfaced to even feel I could have that right or privilege. Who am I
addressing and into what conversation is it being inserted?
“The drawings are as much actions as they are objects. They record an
ongoing internal struggle.”
A small story about hunger and
survival in a small place
What kind of world would the images in these drawings suggest to
someone who knew nothing about the artist, or about the small place he
comes from? A confusing place, a sinister place, a funny place? A place
where that person could imagine “real” people living, a “real” place
with “real” problems”? What would that person make of the drawings’
collective title, Tropical Night?
Would it sound like an ironic joke? Would he think, so they too have
“night”? Would he grope back into etymology and remember that a tropic
is a place where something turns?
Who is turning, who is turning into what?
What are the true names for these things? A small wooden bench, a
distinctive triangular notch cut between its legs. A starburst shape
that might be a flower or a leaf, a halo or a collar, or a setting sun.
A medieval map of the Old World, continents with crinkled edges and
rivers like roots or worms, writhing. Flights of hummingbirds,
conspiring. Men jumping or swimming or trying to keep their balance.
Monsters, sometimes one-eyed, sometimes two, cramming their mouths with
human flesh. Loaves of bread. Slices of cake. The numbers one, two,
three, seven. Dogs marking their territory. Feet. Cages and fences. The
sea, or the horizon that hovers beyond. Women in Carnival bikinis. The
silhouette of a young man, his bald head carrying absurd burdens, or
filled with visions of all the above.
Of whose world is this a catalogue? Of whose history are these the
chapters? Whose lexicon? Whose game? Whose fate?
And what, then, do these drawings “mean”? What is the statement, the
What if the point is, simply, the act of drawing itself, of following
these private, personal whims and speculations? Ink on paper, thoughts
on the fly, in the rough? Confidence (or faith) in the final value of
the process, of the act, an act like a kind of hyper-aware meditation?
“Canvas is like millennium talk, it’s like the big statement.” These
drawings are like everyday talk. Is there something unexpected about
the modesty and quietness and patience of the enterprise? Drawing as an
end in itself, not as a means of preparing for—sketching
out—rehearsing—some grand programme or position?
“The empty canvas is a territory of the Western canon, or the
nationalist one. Painting implies a kind of surety, a kind of purpose
for posterity. Drawing, to me, is ephemeral and immediate. I want to
talk about occupying the frame with my thoughts.”
Not something to say, but a willingness to investigate what might be
said? And, hence, what might not?
Annie Paul: “he has developed a form of note-taking (taking note as
opposed to taking notes) using a visual stenography with which he
sketches his location and state of mind.”
Like a writer opening his notebook, letting the world read those
private jottings—observations, anecdotes, questions, recollections,
lists of random words and phrases, half-remembered quotations, false
starts—that might or might not otherwise be the raw material of some
more finished work, which could more safely, more certainly, be called
“I am enjoying not having to account for myself. Can I just enjoy the
aesthetic, the immediate sensation? Can I have fun?”
The writer must start somewhere, so he starts with the simplest, most
ordinary word he can think of. Anything could follow this word. The
word is: “the”.
The writer stares at this word, scrawled in the upper left corner of
the no longer empty sheet of paper. Anything could follow this word,
but staring at it, the writer realises he doesn’t know anything.
He stares at this simple, familiar word—“the”—until it begins to look
strange and unsettling. The writer wonders if anyone has ever really
looked at this word before—the shapes of the letters, their darts and
curves. The “t” and the “h” like cruel hooks turned this way and that.
The “e” like a sickle. How would you pronounce a word like this? Why
would you wish to? The writer wonders how anyone has ever been able to
write this word, make those particular shapes with a pen, and then go
on to write another.
Like the writer, the artist does not know where to start. The artist
stares at the empty, white sheet of paper; he studies its grain, the
way one corner curls slightly away from his table, the microscopic
specks of dust across its surface.
The artist, like the writer, must start somewhere, so he draws a line:
a simple horizontal line, in black ink, across the middle of the sheet
A line across the sheet of paper, for the writer, means either a blank
space waiting to be filled, like this: ____________; or a sign for
deletion, for removing something that, because the ink mark has already
been made, cannot really be deleted: like this.
Either way, for the writer, the line is a mark of failure. It goes
For the artist, the line is a line, one of the basic elements of his
medium. It is a beginning. It can go anywhere. It is a horizon, beyond
which all is possible.
The writer knows it is unfair to think so, and furthermore untrue, but
he thinks it anyway, constantly: it is easier for the artist.
The writer wonders: What am I doing here?
The challenge is to calculate the
amount of energy needed to spring again
“Artists are more concerned with who they actually are or may be than
with the ‘what’ they are supposed to represent.”
—You could take a longer, wider
metaphysical view and argue that every artist or writer comes from a
small, peripheral place: the Republic of the Self, where to be a
citizen is to be an exile.
—And the other way round.
“I am not sure what I am doing.”
Chris is saying: “If you just take this”—he picks up the stack of
paper, say seven by seven by nine inches, holds it in the air for a
moment, puts it back on the table with a gentle thud; it has weight, it
casts a shadow—“if you just take that as an object, what it says is,
all of these thoughts are in there.
“When you look at that, it’s just so beautiful. It’s a stack of paper,
and all the mysteries that it entails.”
. . . on the edge between what looked
infinite and what appeared to be finite or known and understood
allegedly . . .
“There is no end in sight.”
Those early days: text from
drawing “Immersed in Explanations”
“It feels like saying something twice….”: C. Cozier, Tropical Night blog, 10 May, 2007
“I like to draw….”: conversation with C. Cozier, 22 April, 2006
“There are narrative passages….”: conversation with C. Cozier, 25
Sending for sweetness: text
from drawing “Lucky Seven”
“The texts on the drawings are written free-form….”: conversation with
C. Cozier, 22 April, 2006
“The word ‘literary’ could imply….”: C. Cozier, Tropical Night blog, 10 May, 2007
“the imagery as it unravels….”: conversation with C. Cozier, 22 April,
“a mood or tone I often feel….”: conversation with C. Cozier, 22 April,
“shadowed space that is not between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m….”: C. Cozier, Tropical Night blog, 4 May, 2007
“A world with two coups, murders….”: C. Cozier, in Uncomfortable: The Art of Christopher
Cozier (2005, video, 47:38), by Richard Fung
“The question is whether I have a history….”: conversation with C.
Cozier, 22 April, 2006
“Many of these islands were not supposed to be ‘societies’….”: C.
Cozier, Tropical Night blog,
4 May, 2007
A small story about hunger:
text from drawing “Cyclops”
“Canvas is like millennium talk….”: conversation with C. Cozier, 22
“The empty canvas is a territory of the Western canon….”: email from C.
Cozier, 18 June, 2007
“he has developed a form of note-taking….”: Annie Paul, “The Enigma of
Survival: Travelling Beyond the Expat Gaze”, Art Journal, Spring 2003
“I am enjoying not having to account for myself….”: conversation with
C. Cozier, 25 April, 2007
The challenge is to calculate:
text from drawing “Hop Skip Jump”
“Artists are more concerned….”: C. Cozier, from draft of text read in
his studio, 11 June, 2007
“I am not sure what I am doing”: C. Cozier, Tropical Night blog, 4 May, 2007
“If you just take this….”: conversation with C. Cozier, 22 April, 2006
. . . on the edge between:
text from drawing “Immersed in Explanations”
“There is no end in sight”: conversation with C. Cozier, 25 April, 2007
The Tropical Night blog is a creative collaboration between Christopher Cozier and Nicholas Laughlin, evolving from the series
of drawings. See more images from the series in this Flickr photoset.