In advance of Christine Clark's upcoming solo show, Sam Reilly speaks to the artist in an attempt to clarify the mysterious nature of her work.
Speaking to Christine Clark about her artwork proves to be, in a key respect, very similar to the experience of viewing the paintings themselves. Both begin with looking for clues – for moments of clarity when the meaning of these artworks, elusively allusive as they always are, suddenly becomes apparent, and explicable. When Christine suggests that "switches, plugs and taps appear in my work as I like the idea of ‘switching off’ from reality", I wonder why I didn't realise this before. In order to enter into her lavish fantasies, we are being invited by Christine to first of all disconnect from our everyday mental states. It seems, with this, that the artist has provided a waymark to guide us through her dense imaginative landscape; that we have a clear and unambiguous significance to a few of the myriad symbols - charms, jewels, household objects, discarded musical instruments, animals wild and tame – which populate it. Perhaps, following the clue that we must 'switch off' from reality, we will begin to decipher what others might mean.
However, the artist soon tells me that others are simply trinkets she's collected, which 'filter subconsciously into the painting', and so any attempt to explain them rationally is confounded. Rational design and artist’s whim coexist and blend in the paintings, as well as in Christine's explanation of them, in such a way that we seem to be unable ever to know exactly what we know. Is that face, growing from the withered roots of that tree, intended as a sort of plaintive death mask – if so, does its present act of flourishing represent some kind of affinity between growth and decay? Am I missing something important? Or have I found something which, importantly, isn't actually there?
Mired in this treacherous ground, our relief comes with the realisation that, notwithstanding their clear debts to symbolist painting, it is not in the nature of these works to insist upon any link between symbol and symbolised. There may be areas of clarity, but there is no forbidden ground; there may be clues, but there are no answers. These are paintings which systematically refuse to act as surrogates for our imaginations: to do the imagining for us. Instead, they force us to map out the pitfalls and the dead ends, as well as the occasional coherent paths to wonder and understanding with which our own minds are made up.
Clark points to the influence of music and poetry in her work; how “emphasis and pause and delivery” create “an overwhelming energy or feeling”. Literary influences are frequently evoked; one of the ambitious centre-pieces of the current collection, depicting a discarded armchair in a sky-scape which is by turns ominous and blissfully calm, is named ‘Where the Sea meets the Moon-blanched Land’ after Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ (1851); elsewhere, there are cuttings from poetry books worked into the actual fabric of the paintings themselves. When I ask Christine about these, her answer is maddeningly elusive: “Some texts do act as clues”. Which texts? How can we tell? ‘Dover Beach’ is most famous for the ‘ignorant armies' who 'clash by night’ in the poem’s final line, and who came for the entire Victorian epoch to signify the loss of clear purpose - of unconditional trust in any overarching universal order - which came at the hands of scientific advance. The discarded armchair in Clark’s painting could perhaps represent a lingering relic from the artist's imagining of some such former time; perhaps a benign structuring presence once sat there, orchestrating the ethereal harmony of stars and sky, sea and land – though the chair itself now also seems to dissolve, to become the very stars it may once have been employed to control. In an older painting, the famous line of Auden's - 'pack up the moon and dismantle the sun’ – is scrawled on the edge of the canvas, where it morphs gradually from recognisable words into incongruous letters and finally into illegible lines; from the representational nature of language into the purely aesthetic nature of linear form. Once again, we have to forget whatever systematic logic we held as true before: to disconnect – even from something as fundamental as language – in order to dimly intuit the beautiful, chaotic order which characterises Clark’s transcendent world.
Between moments of disconnection and reconnection, between order and chaos - what is consistent throughout Clark’s mythology is its situation upon the threshold. The recurring deep, ethereal blues which form the backgrounds could evoke either dusk or dawn – but always one or the other, always a time at which night and day exchange. The motif of dangling keys suggests a movement between boundaries; the intricately constructed trees at once suggest growth and decay. The paintings are both wonderfully humorous and deeply solemn - though some of Clark's symbols have a rich significance, others she avers are simply there to “poke fun at myself, social situations, or the more mundane parts of life”, to “make them into an obscure or slightly comical narrative.” Glasses of red wine appear just because the artist “loves red wine”.
In the new works which appear in the current collection, there is a marked stylistic development which sees Clark adopt a more directly linear mode of expression; the discarded piano in her ‘Nocturne’ is evoked with just a few loose strokes of gold. It almost feels as though the artist is so thoroughly steeped in her own mythology that she is confident enough to depict a little less, and leave a little more of the work to the imagination; less to recognition, and more to intuition, to chance. She suggests that these are works concerned with balancing “rawness and tension”; as with music, the concern is with eliciting emotional states immediately, through the sheer beauty of form. In ‘Nocturne’, content and form collide as the subject of the piano becomes both the symbol of this musical influence, and the key melody of the piece; its gold is counterpointed by the dots of yellow ochre which depict the forest plants, and harmonised by the alternating darkness and lightness of the background blues.
Gustav Klimt once declared that ‘Art is a line around your thoughts’. Increasingly, I think Christine Clark’s painting has come to challenge this notion; her art has instead become the membrane through which our thoughts, by turns, escape and return to themselves. Christine professes that “I want to take people on some kind of journey”; for me, it is a journey with the qualities of a dance, where the important thing is not the destination, but rather the sensation of motion. Either way, with a particular kind of rhythmic insistence, the paintings refuse to leave us unmoved.
Christine's new solo exhibition will run at scotlandart.com from 7th -30th November; there will be a complimentary cocktail reception from 4pm-7pm on Saturday 7th.
Main image: 'Nocturne', by Christine Clark, 2015. All pieces will be available to purchase here from Friday 6th November: http://www.scotlandart.com/Artist/Artist416.aspx