Paintings at Definitely Superior

MARK NISENHOLT

In her recent show this winter at Definitely Superior gallery, Ann Clarke offered for our view nine abstract paintings completed over the years 1996 to 1998. The paintings fall roughly into two groups differing in method, handling and emotional impact.

The first group of works is in my view the more appealing and features a more vigorous, slashing attack and a sensuous color-play. An early painting, from 1996/97, entitled "one to go home" is typical of this approach. It is a smallish work about two feet high by four feet wide. Painted in acrylic with slashes of charcoal, it is a turbulent mixture of black, red, green and white on a light grey ground. The marks are generally of a similar size, though by no means uniform, and run more or less horizontally in keeping with the shape of the canvas. There is a feeling of tumbling chaotic motion not unlike water moving along a channel and a relaxed attention in which each mark and gesture has an individual importance yet contributes almost unconsciously to the whole. The work seems to relate via its horizontality to the act of reading but also, curiously, to swimming and to music. Another work, "The Drawing of the Cracks in the Road", from 1998, serves as a fine companion to the first piece, being of the same dimensions and general method of execution. It is even more river-like with reedy greens, lavenders, and rusty reds on a mossy grey-green ground.

A clear reference to landscape is noted in the diptych "Those Days Wandering In the Forest". Vivid passages of deep greens and dark olive drippings of thick paint are relieved by sharp streaks of sky blue and brash pink and gold. The moist vines of paint enclose the viewer in a manner not unlike the forest referred in the title. However, the temptation of the painter as well as the viewer is to take the painting too literally, to satisfy the natural tendency to make pattern and to make meaning where none is called for. The painter in this case by virtue of her wild and muscular application of pigments can be seen to be participating in this struggle to be free of preconceptions, to see her subject afresh. The "forest" is the outcome of a process by which the painter's body is driven by a row memory of nature. The edge that is trod between disorder and order is a familiar path in the annals of abstract art but it is still thrilling when the result is successful as it is here.

The painting "While You Were In Paris", executed from 1996 to 1998, is a larger square format painting that suggests a transition to a more ordered application of paint and a more graphic sensibility. While it is closely related in manner to the paintings already mentioned it begins to open up to reveal more ground and to float its markings as objects with independent lives. The painting harbours Twombly-esque intimations of words in charcoal tracings over and under the more expressionist acrylic suspended on a hazy pinkish ground. The references to nature begin here to yield to more abstracted mental constructs, to emotion, private memories, longing and absence. The relative thinness of paint and airiness of composition foretell of the shift of attitude which is made more explicit in the remaining large square paintings.

"Sheets to the Wind", from 1997, about five feet square, marks a clean break with the general nature oriented paintings. It is composed of carefully drawn and painted layers of linear pattern. Each layer of line is rendered in one color or tone and opens to reveal the next level of design. The lines approach the edges of the canvas, bounce off, return to loop around the centre and carom off the edges again. The eye is kept moving uniformly around the canvas as if journeying without prospect or rest. One notices that each line maintains its own colour, thickness, medium and rhythm, completely independent of the other lines. It takes a conscious act of the viewer to shift attention from one linear system to another and to leap between them to the off-white ground. The total result is somewhat anxiety - inducing because although the application of the pigments is deliberate and precise and not indicative of impulse action, the relentless movement of the design can exhaust an eye which seeks a focus or area of particular emphasis. The diagrammatic and map-like scheme of the composition is one in which the planar movement of the eye, left to right and top to bottom, creates a sensation of scanning, as if surveying a map from a great height. The painting imparts to the viewer the position of a traveler, the stance of a journeyer.

On the south wall of the gallery were three paintings from 1998, all about four feet square, titled "As It Is", "Howling Still" and "When I Get Back". They carried the net motif somewhat further and played more subtly with colour interactions. The colour in these works is more subdued and the ground is greyer but enlivened with a skein of translucent white. The paintings seem very low key in mood as well as colour but are also unusually sensitive to the ambience of the gallery lighting and the light which spills in through the windows. The use of metallic and luminescent pigments certainly contributes to the responsiveness of the surface as does the veiled application of the ground colour. The strict application of the linear elements crisscrosses the composition as before but this time the ground is more active and carries the gestural weight of the pieces. This draws the eye more forcefully below the surface layers and expands the spatial illusion dramatically.

The paintings play with formal opposites: thick and thin, matte and gloss, surface and depth, linearity and tonality, and edge and centre. The general mood though sombre also admits its opposite in glimmers of flickering gold and silver. The ambiguity of the emotional tenor of the work along with its compositional restlessness leads to a very open visual experience, one which can admit several contradictory reactions to the imagery. The paintings thereby respond and change not only to the ambience of light but also to the ambient of thoughts and feelings of the viewer. The works are indeed truly net-like in this aspect also, in that they catch their viewer in a calm and undramatic way, traveling the patterns of line, turning the mind on itself slowly, bringing to the surface out of an uneasy puzzlement, a sense of order and completion.

Ann Clarke has shown us two divergent approaches to the art of abstract painting and reveals to us the breadth of her talents and concerns. The viewer may favor one stylistic approach or one painting over another but as whole the exhibition presents beautifully effective range of visual and emotional experiences from and artist in top form.

Thunder Bay
March 1999