Features Editor Galleries Magazine
Abstract painting has been going through a distinctly testing time over the last three decades or so, the powerful impetus given to it at its birth by the great ‘Modernist pioneers – Kandinsky, Malevich, Miro among others – and the intense development of those original impulses by the great post-war American Abstract Expressionist generation of Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning and Reinhardt becoming increasingly questioned by both artists and critics for whom its claims to personal truth and spiritual authenticity seemed a kind of impossible, even insincere, dream. This was, is, our increasingly materialist and cynically post-modernist society talking of course but, with so much abstract painting, now so wary of the spiritual, ending up either as pretty but essentially empty gesturing or solemn blankness, it has been hard, at times to refute.
The outcome, unsurprisingly, has not been very good for abstract painting with artists, self-conscious about making grand but potentially banal painterly statements, often ending up in timidity and reticence, producing what Kandinsky once described as “vain squandering of artistic power, ” “a neglect of inner meanings.” The great American critic Meyer Shapiro ( 1904-1996) put this down to the increasing need for abstract art to communicate, with pressure on the artist “to create a work in which he transmits an already prepared and complete message to a relatively indifferent and impersonal receiver.” Abstract art in short could no longer be understood as a mystical inner construction, transmitting inner meanings but was rather just another ‘reproducible’ communication.
How good, then, to see an artist like Rachel Clark, in the full flow of her career, clearly resisting this tendency to take the line of least resistance and simply produce an art of facile communicativeness, but intent rather on creating an intensely personal language of abstract art, one that gives form and meaning to her conscious, spiritual life. As she herself has said “Colour, its physical and psychological input, is at the heart of my work” and her latest series of paintings, entitled ‘Transitions’ – still in progress – would seem to be making a distinct shift away from the narrative undertones of her two previous series, ‘Testament’ and ‘Planet Suite,’ towards a more purely abstract and painterly expression of changing states of consciousness.
Thus, whereas in a painting like Lot’s Wife from her Testament series, we could read a narrative of sorts into the white slash of paint that divides the massive blocks of browny-pink and scarlet on either side, now, in works like Quiddity, Transition, Star Mine or Feasting on the Wind, there is no ‘story’ as such. Instead the drama of the painting lies directly in the tension created by the small blocks, flashes or knots of tangled colours that seem to resist or even, in some way, to be forming out of the larger blocks of colour to either side or surrounding them.
In Quiddity , for example, a small grey-white to pale blue block in the centre is seemingly being compressed and squeezed by the heavier masses of scarlet and orangey-red to either side while, in Star Mine, three small rectangles of white and bluey grey contained within a larger ribbon of pink and dark reds resist the tides of reddy-black and purply- blue that sweep in from either side. The metaphor that informs these and all the others in this series to date, is, to my eyes at least, irresistible, the miraculous process itself by which an individual creative consciousness comes into being and finds form out of chaos, re-creating the complexity of the sensuous world that surrounds it. And that, quite simply, is what all good abstract painting should aspire to!
Nicholas Usherwood, Features Editor Galleries magazine – May 2014
Art critic and writer
Rachel Clark’s intimate and yet coolly-objective paintings have the power to draw you in and take you on an aesthetic 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 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 the complexity and mystery which constitute being. She provides us with sensuous starting points for experiencing and thinking about the act and process of creativity, of life itself. All this and more too can be found in the work of Rachel Clark.
A World to Win Magazine January 2014
Critics Circle Website March 2014
“I paint because it’s who I am – the motivation is like living and breathing,” said abstract artist Rachel Clark. “But inspiration only comes from working.”
Rachel has been painting in her current studio in the former Spratt’s dog biscuit factory on Limehouse Cut for 33 years and also runs life drawing classes from the space.
“I love this area,” she said. “But it’s changed so much over the years. There used to be a tarmac factory over the road where everyone congregated for lunch and Crisp Street market was full of proper East Enders. The stalls were run by generations of the same family – it was the sort of place where everyone knew your name.”
Rachel will be exhibiting a selection of her work in the Canary Wharf Window Galleries until December 1 alongside a show at her studio until December 3, where anyone is welcome to drop in. “I travel through Canary Wharf every day and I really like it,” she said. “Some of the students who come to my life drawing classes work there and a major collector used to be based there, so I have a good relationship with it.”
Rachel has shown prints at Clifford Chance and has also exhibited at the Royal Academy Of Art, the National Portrait Gallery and Curwen Gallery amongst others. Her work in the Window Galleries and studio show includes paintings, limited edition prints and ceramics. “I mainly paint in oil, which I love,” she said. “It’s organic and temperamental but the quality of life within an oil painting is second to none. I work in layers, applying paint, overpainting, scraping it off and re-applying. The surfaces are rich in colour and often quite sumptuous, but to arrive at the completed work much has to be destroyed and re-worked.”
At her light-filled studio many of Rachel’s prints and paintings are on display, including Feasting On The Wind, a vibrant artwork now starring in the Window Gallery.
Her art costs from £100 for a print up to £20,000 for a large painting. But who buys it? “All sorts of people,” she said. “One company wanted something uncompromising for their boardroom because they felt it reflected the adventurousness of their company. But often it’s people who want to own an original work of art in their office or home and find they can have an endless conversation with a work of art.”
Rachel’s dialogue with her work is equally engaged. “We have a balanced but lively relationship,” she said. “Listening to what the painting tells me it needs and deciding what I think it needs is like a battle of wills with an inanimate object – no wonder people think artists are eccentric or mad.”
Rachel’s studio show will be open from Nov 24-26 and from Dec 1-3. Go to rachelclark.com for more information.
The Wharf, November 2017