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