Ann Clarke's Lyric Maps


Mapping is an activity integral to the human imagination: not just in the literal sense of plotting terrain, but in the sense of planning, schematizing predicting and describing. As documents, maps live between the worlds of sight and knowledge; because they inhabit this rare inter-space, a kind of glory accrues them. Ann Clarke harnesses something of this glory in her recent paintings, demonstrating shared kinship with the cartographer's medium. Not in the conceptual or precisionist sense, but in the lyrical, abstract tradition of opening up space purely for the eye.

At the same time, these are physical, tactile pictures. How, then, could they be map-like? One answer is in their connection to the body. Just as maps contain haptic elements that graphically involve the senses: dots of various sizes and colours, broken and unbroken lines, expanses of colour to designate topography jumbled words, Clarke's paintings use impasto, dense layering and hard juxtaposition of colours to carry her imaginary constructs into the viewer's space. But more fundamentally, they share a device with maps. In recent work, like "Rembrandt's Hands", "Line of Desire', "Sheets to the Wind", layers of linear tracery accumulate. Sometimes one line of colour will have another painted directly on it, as if to emphasize its path; other lines cross the picture-plane just once. the perpetual breakup and continuity of these lines pace the pathway that the eye takes through the work: you haven't seen it completely until you've gone through the maze, and there's no point in doing it too fast because there's great pleasure in just getting there. But once there, having absorbed all the painting's detail and minutiae, another reading admits itself.

This reading reconfigures the whole: all the mapped fragments cohere into the image. The ambiguity thus established isn't self-evident: it's a doubling device to create uncertainty and havoc in the viewer expecting simple truths or broad categories. Do I overstate the case? Does the folded, lithographically printed map overstate its own ability to represent a place not directly pictured?

If we accept the analogy, the legitimate question arises, what place or space can this work represent? if the surface markings and incidents on the canvas are the work's particular content, it's worth observing in detail how they establish rhythms and patterns that are indeed hierarchical, without being literary or descriptive of anything but themselves.

"Rembrandt's Hands", for example, is a painting with a deep umber ground backlit with ochre. The middle ground is red, with a tangle of predominantly white lines in the foreground. Within these, spaces articulate the interstices between loops and intersections. The white lines are pasty, as if they were created by streaking typewriter whiteout; they clearly form the picture's figure, interrupted by streamers of red and green on the umber ground. We shouldn't take the title at its word: the foreground figure doesn't represent the hands, though the chiaroscuro in the painting may be Rembrandt-esque. But it's a useful signpost.

It says: don't read this painting too literally. What you see is what you see; and it's also what you don't see. The painting is also a marker that points to other worlds: the history of painting for one; the handmade object, and its tactile connection to the human body, for another.

The earliest maps were painted and drawn. Often painter and cartographer were one and the same person, especially in Canada. The glory of both maps and paintings is the sign posting of new worlds. If a painting is good, which is to say, accurate, it will always be pioneering. In her work, Ann Clarke honours the conditions of this idealist, materialist discipline.

June 2000