Sensuous territories of the mind

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Rachel Clark’s intimate and yet coolly-objective paintings have the power to draw you in and take you on an emotional journey. In figurative art, external reference points are easier to read. But in abstraction the viewer is encouraged to look inward as well as outward. This challenge perhaps helps explain why it has remained an undercurrent in British art for too many years. Clark’s recent work shows it is high time for a reappraisal.

Modulated reds hold the eye. The greater part of Liquid Sound and Exit, as you travel through light and dark, is in shades of pink, maroon and red.

Soft flesh tones billow and feather out and suddenly intensify, as though in a gathering storm. You plunge into bottomless blacks, blues and violets. A flash of blue threads in and out of looping flares. Red and white jostle; a clear sense of location vanishes as you are drawn downwards, by gravity and yellow light into an unknown world beyond the canvas.

The feeling is both cosmic and psychological.  The colours flow in and out of a dark – but not empty – space. We associate them with the tumultuous beauty of fiery nebulas formed by interstellar dust light-years away. But in Clark’s latest paintings, these distant solar storms are tamed and internalised into objects of contemplation, whilst still holding a powerful charge. The far away is brought home and humanised. And made consonant with our emotions.

It all goes back to the artist’s childhood when she would lie in bed and wonder how the universe might work and where we are in it.  She asked herself where “nothing” might be and how you could create something out of “nothing”. A preoccupation with the essence of things, the mystery of life and what it means to be human has never left her.

From that early philosophically-inclined approach it was perhaps a jolt to become an art student in an era when the dominant paradigm was figurative drawing from life. Nonetheless, those skills remain massively important to her and she has continued to teach life drawing and painting since 1976.

Understanding how to make a figure move and work in space is important for representational art, theatre and animation. Beyond that, it is a crucial mental-physical exercise that keeps Clark focused and alive, as indeed it does for other abstract practitioners.  From that foundation more important things flow, and abstraction is everything to her. What goes on behind what lies before you, in the other territories of the mind, is what really counts and needs questioning.

Her recent show at Fitzrovia’s Curwen and New Academy Gallery was appropriately called “Transitions”. She had begun to move away from her more usual horizontal/vertical format. This was often constructed around an axis from which loosely-defined, multi-layered squares and rectangles unfold. Clark uses such shapes in many permutations. In her compositions we find the the proportion of the parts to each other and to the whole is in the mysteriously generative Golden Ratio or Fibonacci sequence. That satisfying relationship is present, and yet the rule is as much honoured in the breach as in the observance.  And that subversion endows a subtle movement and elasticity.

Quiddity (the essence or real nature of a thing) and Quietly Moving On are roughly structured around rectangles. Sometimes the dominant vertical is two-thirds of the way across the canvas, depending on whether you read from left to right or vice versa.  In Quietly Moving On, it forms a central spine. The floating shapes are enlivened by colours, marks and textures so that they move in and out of the visual plane. The lemon haze of Last Song is threatened by a black vacuum. Tangerine-tinged underpaint and disappearing pentimenti warm up the acid yellow, with lilac, pale salmon and light blue jaggedly stacking up the centre. The lingering presence of contrasting colours gives her work a sense of time and layering.

These paintings take a long time to make. They are painted over and over again, scraped down until she starts to get what she wants.

“You can be battling away between what the painting says it can say, what I want it to say and the way I can say it,” Clark explains.  “It goes on until the conversation between the painting and myself has ended. You are having a fight and then suddenly you can stand back and say that a new entity has arrived and it is finished.”

And just as the final work is the result of an often tumultuous tug-of-war between the artist and the painting, so the viewing of it requires time and patience. These complex conversations are muted, hermetic and refuse to give up their secrets too easily.

In his 1957 essay, The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art, the brilliant Lithuanian-American Marxist art historian, Meyer Schapiro described the passion that can be channelled through Abstract Expressionism:

“The impulse … becomes tangible and definite on the surface of a canvas through the painted mark. We see, as it were, the track of emotion, its obstruction, persistence or extinction. But all these elements of impulse which seem at first so aimless on the canvas are built up into a whole characterised by firmness, often by elegance and beauty of shapes and colours.”

In Clark’s work we can experience the features that Schapiro noted. But more than that. She deliberately sets out to create an “other”.  That “other” is deliberately set up in opposition to her through the struggle with dumb matter – paint on canvas. The individual subject begins to distinguish itself and acquire its own life. Thus it is transformed into “a thing for us”. It reflects not only the artist’s personality but also ourselves back to us. Then the abstract form starts to take energy from what lies outside itself and becomes a concrete vehicle for the contemporaneous.

Abstract expressionist art has come a long way since the heroes of the New York school. In the UK, Denis Bowen’s London New Vision gallery pioneered the understanding of contemporary art movements such as the Informel, Tachism and Gesturalism.  The example of the American school inspired a number of British artists.  Soon art historians began to contest the white-male-European domination of the movement by uncovering a more complex and inclusive history. In the 1980s, groups of abstract painters, including some powerful female protagonists, became better known – certainly in London – flying in the face of prevailing post-modernist fashions.

In the 1990s and into the 21st century, a few gallerists continued to focus on abstract art. These included independent ventures like the Poussin Gallery, which survives today as the web-based Abstract Critical forum. Now a wider recognition from major public institutions is well overdue.

Abstract painting freed artists from a dead weight and had exactly that liberating potential which the critics who championed it spoke about. The desire to explore new territories, to focus on the expression of feeling and the insistence on the interconnected and contradictory unity of whole and parts, on the act and process of creativity – all this and more is as valid as ever and it can be found in the work of Rachel Clark.

by Corinna Lotz