Ann Clarke - Moving Beyond Structure

Janet Clark


Ann Clarke's exhibition Moving Beyond Structure presents a thirty-year survey of her work. Clarke has created this work in her studio in Thunder Bay, and in studios in Edmonton, Halifax, Toronto, Guelph, Tamworth, (which is near Kingston, Ontario) and in London, England. Although venues where the artist has painted have changed over the years, Clarke's paintings demonstrate an unwavering commitment to a personal style that is grounded in modernist abstraction.

The exhibition is part of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery's Regional Artist Series. An important part of the mandate of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, as the only public art gallery in the region, is to exhibit the work of artists in Northwestern Ontario. Ann Clarke has lived and worked in Thunder Bay since 1992. She teaches painting and drawing at Lakehead University where she is Chair of the Visual Arts Department. In 1999, she was a recipient of a Canada Council Senior Artist's Award, and her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Solo exhibitions that are part of the Regional Artists Series usually feature an artist's recent work. However, the year 2000 marked over thirty years of Ann Clarke's career as an artist, and it seemed appropriate to present a survey of paintings produced during this span of time and celebrate the work of this senior artist in our community.

Moving Beyond Structure

The earliest paintings , Edge Painting # I and #II (1969) in this thirty-year survey exhibition of Ann Clarke's work suggest that, from the outset, the artist chose to work within the tenets of modernist abstraction, and her most recent work in the exhibition, Dark Angel (2000) serves to confirm that she has remained committed to both her chosen medium of painting, and to abstraction.

Educated at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, England, in an environment that was not entirely supportive of non-representational work, Clarke took direction from the all-over abstraction found in the work of Helen Frankenthaler and Mark Tobey that was being exhibited in London art galleries. Painter/teachers such as Bernard Cohen and Harold Cohen encouraged early explorations in her work of the repetition and patterning that were essentially an extension of British pop art at that time. However, it was a much practiced application of paint to canvas and an appreciation for the formal qualities of the medium combined with a nascent interest in abstraction that she brought with her when she emigrated to Canada, and specifically Edmonton, Alberta, in 1968.

In Edmonton, by then the centre of formalist abstraction in western Canada, Clarke continued to explore new ways to make non-representational work. The Edmonton Art Gallery and the University of Alberta, where Ann Clarke would teach for a number of years, brought in artists from both Canada (Jack Bush, Millie Ristvedt, David Bolduc) and the United States (Jules Olistki, Stephen Green, Michael Steiner) to give workshops and exhibit their work. Clarke was working in an environment that supported her developing art practice. On a trip to England in 1971, she was further influenced by the large canvases of Mark Rothko with their, as Clarke terms it, "all-over abstraction". [1]

Of all these visiting lecturers and artists, it was Clement Greenberg who was to have a most profound effect. She first met him at a talk organized by Terry Fenton at the Edmonton Art Gallery in 1973 and would continue to maintain contact with him until 1987. He became a mentor who, as Clarke states, "influenced her thinking rather than her work". [2] With his affirming "modern abstraction's future will not be found in theory but in the act of painting itself", Greenberg's theory supported the direction of Clarke's work. Bringing together representative examples of the artist's work from across a period of thirty years, it is evident that all the works in this exhibition are informed by the act of painting. The work is also informed by modernist abstraction with the brief exception of a period from 1987 to 1991 when there is a departure into figurative work that is both allegorical and self-referential. As well, there is a continuity in form which is identified by the artist as "the actual things the work is made of, the materials which are part of a visual vocabulary which can be used on a two-dimensional surface". [3] Gesture, engagement with mark making, the application of paint in layers and colour are common elements in Clarke's work, each assuming different degrees of importance in different series. The underlying drawing or mark making is a constant in all the work with an often visceral application of paint tht is pulled, scraped, applied as gritty texture, or even in conjunction with collaged shapes glued to the surface. In some series of paintings, particularly those completed after the artist attended the Triangle Artist's Workshop in upstate New York in August of 1984, colour predominates and moves over the surface of the canvas in large swirls of paint. (as for example in Black Beauty, 1984) Art Critic Karen Wilkin, whom Clarke first met at the Edmonton Art Gallery in the 1970's where Wilkin was curator at the time and who has often written about her work, described Clarke's work in 1986 in an article in Vie des Arts: "the paintings of the early 80's made with sweeps of a spreading tool and drawn lines read as layers of superimposed drawings with subsequent applications of paint, scraped and interrupted in order to reveal more complex campaigns beneath". [4] The interrelatedness of these formal qualities in Clarke's work has meant that her work is often termed as painterly, but it is precisely by this description that the artist wants her work to be recognised. She wants people to be engaged by this painterly quality when they look at her work.

The viewer is also engaged by the superimposition of layers of drawing and broad gestural arcs of colour. This layering carries over from series to series and is even found in the figurative work of the late eighties and early nineties. There is an overriding sense of veiling and revelation in the paintings in this survey, but what is veiled and what is revealed? There is an ambiguous and, for the most part, unidentifiable imagery that seems suspended within these layers. Abstract painting is not overtly about anything but it is always about something. The source for Clarke's glyph-like vocabulary of marks is the subjective inner world of the artist. The symbolism begins to surface in works executed after 1985, becoming identifiable in works such as Angel/Boat/House(1988) and Leaping Deer (1988) and becomes overtly representational in the figurative works done between 1988 and 1991. These figurative works coincide with a period of change in the artist's life when she moved from Toronto to Tamworth in Ontario. Involved in the process of Jungian analysis, the artist was looking into her own past and working through issues of identity. References in paintings such as By The River - Pink (1989/90) to the self and appropriated images appear as "quotations" placed over a background of gestural mark-making. Clarke continued to use this imagery, ultimately veiling it with text.

In 1993 she returned to abstraction and the subjective, inner recesses of the mind rather than the outer world. This represented a return to Clement Greenberg's concept that "advanced abstract art exclude representation in order to free itself from all that it shared with other mediums." [5]

An underlying vocabulary of gestural drawing and a layering of sweeps of colour that are now more linear dominate the recent work of this artist. With gesture is equated the act of painting. This absorbs the artist and has become, more than ever, her reality. All her memories, feelings, emotions, experiences are expressed in this very gestural visual vocabulary. For the artist, painting is a tool for meditation and reflection, a working through of ideas, discoveries, chance and being. The artist titles her work after completion and perhaps only then is there a suggestion of this associative aspect. Clarke believes that titling her paintings is important because it gives the viewer an opportunity for responsibility. A title hints at meaning but at the same time the meaning is kept vague. It serves to engage the viewer and in the process of looking, the viewer is involved in a consideration of texture, colour, gesture, in the expansiveness of the painting itself and a contemplation of the artist's exploration of pure abstraction.

Each painting in the survey, although frequently part of a larger series, is complete in itself. Each painting is an open-ended exploration. The entire body of work is linked because the process of exploration continues from painting to painting and from series to series. For Ann Clarke, the act of painting drives her work. There is no resolution, only progression and continued exploration in which "the mark of the artist's hand will remain visible". [6]


1. Ann Clarke in conversation with the author.

2. Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting: The Collected Essays and Criticism

3. Ann Clarke, unpublished Artits's statement, 1999.

4. Karen Wilkin, "Les Travaux Recents d'Ann Clarke", Vie des Arts, Vol.XXXI. no. 123 Juin 1986 - Ete, p.64

5. Greenberg, Ibid.

6. Wilkin Ibid.


Thunder Bay Art Gallery
June 2 to July 2, 2000