Where to Start?

BEN DARRAH

Ann Clarke is my mother. As Ann's son I am full of memories that are peripheral to her actual art, but are so interwoven with my outlook that they can't help but have an effect on how I look at her work.

There have been a number of times when I have felt quite uneasy with a new body of her work and it has only been on several subsequent viewings that I have got up to speed and appreciated what she was doing. I particularly remember this when she started to do figurative work [1] in the mid eighties; when she started doing the all-over abstract work which has directly led into her current work; and a series of improbably-balanced sculptures she did in England last year. At the time she showed them to me on first returning to Canada, I just couldn't get my head around them. Now, I am unable to get them out of my head. I have a few theories on this delay, most of which have to do with not looking clearly at the works and being too quick to place them in the context of what I already know and am comfortable with. Ann makes conceptually complex, and refined, works with challenging compositions and boldly expressive paint handling. One of the beautiful things about art is that if you don't get it the first time it allows you to revisit (especially if you don't get it the first time). I see a number of competing and coordinated things happening on the canvas that lead me along their riffs, through the weave of lines and into open spaces. There is a suggestion of infinity - like being underwater with no land or bottom in sight, but then you are brought up to the realization that there is a surface, and a drip and unnatural kink in a line, or an obsessive scratching that speaks of a person's hand. What I feel I am experiencing when I look at Ann's most recent works is an ebb and flow. The degrees of this tide vary, but it is always there - being drawn into a big nothingness and then pushed back into a celebration of painting as painting; gesture, texture, transparency - tracings of lines and washes over a surface of canvas that is framed by edges. Still, here is a paradox: while I am aware of the edges ( and an actual wooden molding frame) I never think of her work as being an object, but more as a window onto another space. There are parts in Ann's paintings that look to be about process, not so much about the process of applying paint, but the process, the occupation, of looking. Throughout the paintings there are visual notes in the form of scribbles, dark patches or swooping linear elements that act as guideposts to the viewer, indicating to the viewer how to go on looking : "Stand here, position the relationship between your tactile and visual senses and your emotional response in this way. Now, look here and follow the line into this space. Now, breathe." As a child my awareness of Ann's work was more about the spaces she painted in and the physical qualities of the support material than about the actual act of painting, which was something she did, something that was taken for granted (by me). It was as a teenager that I began to have some kind of inkling of what most people thought of when they thought of "Artist" - someone who paints in "oils" and has the luxury of waiting around in their garret for the muse to strike. At the time [2] I scoffed at this because what I actually saw was a lot of industrious activity - building stretchers, stretching canvas, hefting 5 gallon buckets of gel up stairs, moving endless numbers of wrapped-in-plastic paintings from one storage space to another........... I can't but help think that this is important. All of this activity demonstrates the logic of the physical world. I have had several conversations with Ann about how, for example, one should attach a two-by-four to another so that it will fully support a weighty structure. These considerations of how things are put together, the specifics of how two objects meet has a massive bearing on one's approach to making an artwork. After all, art is about how things come together.

 

[1] In hindsight, the figurative works of the eighties, which involve an interwoven layer of delineated images, have great similarities to Ann's current work. There is a similar play on different illusions of space in combination with a recurrent reaffirmation of the surface.

[2] I still generally scoff at this, but now have a greater appreciation of the intense introspection needed to produce anything that is fully considered.

Toronto
14 March 2000