Paintings - 1987

KAREN WILKIN

In the 15 years that I have known Ann Clarke, I have watched her work change many times to become increasingly personal and expressive. When we first met, in the early '70s, she was newly arrived from England and feeling somewhat dislocated in Western Canada. Her pictures of the time were dark, irregularly shaped and confrontational, with their soft-edged, symmetrical shapes and delicately brushed surfaces, they were quite beautiful, but slightly anonymous. Clarke soon became dissatisfied with these hieratic structures. Her next, radically different, series was a response, in part, to Lawrence Poons' poured paintings. (Poons was just beginning to explore a method that has allowed him to make some of the most remarkable and passionate paintings of her career). Encouraged by this example, Clarke began to concentrate on color and surface in new ways, forsaking the monochromy, the uniform texture and the shaping of her earlier works. Unlike Poons, she "drew" her paintings with repeated vertical swipes of over-sized brushes and improvised painting tools, so the mark of her hand remained visible. Her quirky color sense declared itself in this series; cool greys, off-pinks and murky greens suggested an English landscape tradition as much as foundation in American abstraction -- not surprising in a prize-winning graduate of the Slade School. The result, a series of pictures like walls or curtains of subtle color, severely criticized the shaped paintings that preceeded them. The fluctuating expanses of the new canvases, the sense of instability evoked by their rivulets of paint and pulsing color, made the shaped pictures look pre-conceived and static.

A teaching stint in Halifax separated Clarke from her family and friends in Edmonton and led to a period of intense introspection. Her loneliness in the small maritime city manifested itself in a group of odd, vigorous drawings filled with highly charged images that provoked any number of interpretations, from plant and animal life to sea creatures to totemic symbols to caballistic signs. Some of these "glyphs" began to find their way into Clarke's paintings, as though the ribbony curtains of her Edmonton paintings had coalesced into dense areas of brushy paint, and in doing so, had revealed unexpected configurations behind the curtains. Clarke pursued these images, even though her abstract pictures often seemed better and more resolved. She was deeply attracted to the notion of using referential signs, however abbreviated or disguised. Sometimes she made the glyphs as recognizeable as possible; at other times, she pushed as far as she could into simplification and ambiguity. Often these explorations were for Clarke's eyes only, yet she never fully abandoned them. Her private vocabulary of images continued to preoccupy her, even when she returned to what seemed, at first, to be "purely" abstract painting about color, surface and expanse.

By the early '80s, Clarke, like many of her contemporaries, had become fascinated by the possibilities of new acrylic paint technology, with its gels and additives. In her abstract pictures, she delighted in nuances and of surface; she varied the transparency and density of her paint application, exploiting shifts in texture and level for maximum drama. Occasionally, she collaged painted canvas on to her pictures, exploring notions of layering in literal, as well as optical ways. Her color became even more intense and saturated at this time, although no less off-beat than it had been a decade earlier.

A session at the Triangular Artists' Workshop and a move to Toronto encouraged Clarke in this direction. At first glance, it seemed as though she had finally let go of the suggestive images that had haunted her earlier work and yet, longer acquaintance with her new abstract pictures suggested that her characteristic glyphs might still be present. The paintings of the early '80s, made with sweeps of a spreading tool and drawn lines, read as layers of superimposed drawing with subsequent applications of paint scraped and interrupted in order to reveal more complex campaigns underneath. There was always a sense of an ultimate, unrevealed layer, a hint of hidden forms beneath that ultimate layer. When Clarke made a group of cast paper pieces, using color paper pulp, she finally showed her hand. The nature of the medium demanded that areas of color remain distinct and clearly bounded, so that she was forced to use discrete images -- the allusive glyphs that had begun in Halifax. The paper pieces intimated that they had been there all along. Even the most non-referential of Clarke's paintings of the intervening years had had, at some point in its development, an armature of evocative drawing. Clarke had simply been burying her private images under layers of paint and (sometimes) re-excavating them to some degree. The paper pieces helped us see that. That half-glimpsed symbols and line clusters (laid bare in the paper works) had, in fact, often given the abstract paintings much of their energy and mystery. In her most recent work, Clarke seems to trust her ability to invent expressive images more than she has in the past. While veiling and revelation are still at the core of her work, she is less secretive about how she arrives at her final result. The sharply delineated drawn glyphs are slightly more visible, momentarily revealed by an inflection of the painted surface. Clarke's color, too, seems closer to her early "landscapey" abstractions, although I would hesitate to generalize. Clarke's newest pictures strive to tap all her resources, to call into play the wealth of private symbols that she has been inventing during her life as a painter, along with all the other means at her disposal. We may never identify her glyphs precisely (nor should we wish to); we may never even see them in their entirety, through their obscuring layers of color. But their presence is no less felt and informs the best of Clarke's new work.

Ann Clarke is a stubborn and uncompromising artist, resisting (sometimes) even the best intentioned advice. She has slowly forged an individual , deeply felt approach. At mid-career, she is a painter to be reckoned with.

 

New York
June 1987