Courtesy of the Clark Estate
John Clark, "The Wheel" 1986
John Clark, "The Wheel" 1986, oil on linen 177.5 x 243.5 cm. (2 panels bolted)
Moved by this show and his earlier Preview Comments, I caught up with Jeffrey Spalding, Artistic Director of Contemporary Calgary and asked him to comment on his summer exhibition at C2: “John Clark: a Tribute” as it nears the end of its run on Sunday, August 31.
GW: As a veteran curator who has organized hundreds of exhibitions, why are you recommending that this particular show is of such special note for us to see?
JS: Initially we mounted the show as an offer of respect and admiration for the work of an artist who died tragically young at age 46, some 25 years ago. The artist and his work has been well known and of great import to myself, the artists and curators of the country over this entire time period. Yet, the public has little opportunity to encounter these fine things.
GW: An anniversary triggers the logic for the specific timing of such an exhibition but what is it that the first time viewers of his art will encounter?
JS: The most evident reasons will be immediately apparent to any visitor. We have been able to gather an exemplary sampling of visually dynamic and poetically compelling paintings that survey this fine artist’s career. The images are striking and are impressive even as you first glimpse them through the windows as you approach the gallery. They pulsate with chromatic and graphic power.
GW: Is this the type of show that a gallery of contemporary art gallery should be mounting?
JS: As recent exhibitions will attest, we do continue to present new art in all its many manifestations: installations, video, performance, sound, the entire gamut. However what I think has been most remarkable from audience reaction to the Clark show is how fresh, current and contemporary they feel today. His works are not subsumed by period style or past preoccupations. Clark’s artistic quest and themes are as pertinent now as they ever were.
GW: So there is room for recent art history at the contemporary art table?
JS: Truly moving art experiences touch you in the here and now; if they are relevant to you this very moment, then why bother with date categorizations. All great artists feed upon the joys of lessons learned from a prior time. So yes, recent art history has a great bearing upon current artistic practices, I probably would confuse this further by asserting that all exemplary works can have a contemporary currency, if seen through caring eyes and probing minds, irrespective of when the work was made.
GW: What do we learn of recent art as we consider the work of John Clark?
JS: Clark was a voracious consumer of outstanding art. The art that moved him made its way into his works. His paintings are imprinted with references and homages to those whose work he learned from and greatly admired. The list would name legions, from Van Gogh, Matisse, De Chirico, Morandi, Ben Nicholson to Philip Guston, Marsden Hartley, John Meredith, Paterson Ewen, David Milne, David Bolduc; his appetite was insatiable. He embraced these greats and hoped to equal their challenge.
GW: Many of those are not in the strictest terms his exact timeline contemporaries.
JS: Clark was very knowledgable about the current state of painting, some list Auerbach and I would posit the German neo-expressionists and the Italian Transavanguardia of Clemente, Chia, Paladino and assorted company (there are a number of great works by these artists in the University of Lethbridge collection where Clark worked 1986-89).
However, we could view his evolution as a melange, the outcome of a battle between two opposing forces at work in the 1970s and 1980s. Clark was naturally inclined to one polar attraction, figuration, yet straight representation was clearly in disfavor. He like other important British born painters of his day, such as David Hockney and Malcolm Morley strove to imbue narrative figuration with the lessons of modern abstract formalism. Complicating his evolution he landed up teaching at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, then the diametrically polar opposite, the hotbed of Conceptual art.
GW: You seem to suggest that his work is based upon side texts and specialty art references. Can regular gallery visitors appreciate all this without a guidebook?
JS: The good news is that so far the evidence is yes! Ultimately he created moving experiences; when you are in their company, you just get it. It has been very gratifying taking children’s groups through the exhibit; perhaps it is his direct and funky drawing style, but it brings immediate smiles to faces
GW: You have suggested that the works are powerful, irreverent, playful; is there something else one can discern from these works?
JS Clark navigated many idiosyncratic contradictions, creating thoughtful introspective, philosophic works. Through this exhibition, visitors will be able to watch his ideas in active transformation, relatable forms morph one into the other: a clock becomes a wheel, the moon or perhaps a celestial orb. What is clear throughout is his constant search and yearning to find meaning, to understand our place in the grander scheme of things across time, space and the individual’s burden to position themselves within an often hostile, sterile urban vacuum,
GW: Time is ticking down on this exhibition; those who do not live in Calgary may not be able to see it firsthand. Where else can one see the work?
JS: True enough. I really hope people see the work in person as it has incredible physical presence. We do have images posted on the Contemporary Calgary facebook page, but that hardly does the trick. Clark has been one of the more revered painters to have worked in Canada, of great influence upon the subsequent generation of painters. Yet his work has lately been on infrequent public view. Soon the show will close at C2 in Calgary. Many of the works have been lent for extended exhibitions in the Maritimes. It may be quite some time before we have this opportunity again in western Canada.
John Clark was born and educated in England, had important periods of residency in Halifax, Nova Scotia, culminating at Lethbridge Alberta, where he died in 1989.
C2 is open Thursdays through Sundays noon to 6pm; admission is free.