Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bronwen Findlay

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I would like to focus on each of the 3000hours artists separately so today I will be exploring some of the works of Bronwen Findlay.
Bronwen Findlay lives in Johannesburg where she teaches and paints. She acknowledges the inspiration of cloth and textiles in her work which we can see in the image below, a luxurious burst of orange and gold and reminds me of Indian sari fabric. She has achieved a sequin-like effect by piping gold paint in dots to form the pattern of a flower. In her artists statement she asserts that the manipulation of paint, pattern and colour are her chief concerns in this particular exhibition, as are also long running themes in her work.

The tantalizing quality of this little painting, just under the size of an A4 page, seems to be fully realized in the work below, which is my favourite painting in this exhibition.

Painted and piped in subtle but dazzlingly reflective shades of gold and silver, it has all the luxury of yards of billowing silk fabric. There is a quality in it over-all-surface-ness (if you’ll excuse me coining a word) that I can only recall seeing in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, in which strings of paint were layered over the surface of the canvas until a static-like web was formed.
One gets the distinct feeling when looking at this work that the canvas is merely a window onto an energy field – comprised of the shifting gold and silver – that is not brought to an end by the paintings dimensions, but continues to exist beyond these borders.
There is however a hint of the flower motif that runs through this body of work; large blooms and leaves are every so subtly piped onto the shining surface, but they do not sit above the surface or exist as a foreground to its background. Instead there is a unification of these two fields that is responsible for the work’s impressive unity. There is also a small square of subtle print fabric worked into the layers of paint, which just floats through, creating another mesmerizing dimension to this beautiful piece.
The last image I will be discussing today is one I find delightfully creepy. The reason for this is that, embedded into the paint is a wrinkled and characteristically textured snake skin. In a previous blog we looked at a similar small work in which, preserved in the paint, lay a half-decomposed flower and this piece is similarly eerie. The strange luxury of this discarded skin, a beautiful natural textile in its own right, is enhanced, once again, by Findlay’s use of gold, piped as in the other works into shimmering sequins of paint. The sequin effect echoes the pattern on the snakeskin and enhances its quality of abandoned finery.

Luxury, finery, natural abundance – these are all qualities I associate with this body of work. There is also the faintest hint of over-abundance, decomposition and decay which is the flipside of these earthly excesses. In Findlay’s work there is often a touch of the shadowy, a feeling of unease amongst wealth and surplus which brings a depth, an enigmatic quality, to her beautiful work.
To visit Bronwen Findlay’s webpage click on the link below.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Merle Payne - Use of Irony

The next two blogs I will devote to each artist individually. While the works of Merle Payne and Bronwen Findlay have many very complementary aspects they also deserve to be investigated separately.
Today I will be looking at Merle Payne’s work and the principles behind Barok’s designs, in particular the use of irony and (sometimes dark) humour.
The image below is of a Barok cushion cover and is a particularly good example of Merle Payne’s use of irony – indeed it is a slightly disturbing piece of work.

The crowned griffin grasping a large gun, with the slogan ‘Republic of Banana’ makes for a rather sharp statement on the state of many African countries. The fact that it appears unusually on a cushion cover somehow makes the statement all the more ironic. It seem to be implied that tolerating corruption in government has become commonplace, something that we live side by side with and are de-sensitized into taking very little notice of.
The image has been repeated in the work XXX Extra Strong.

The lion is a frequently used symbol for Africa and particular the strength of Africa and its leaders. As a very recognizably African symbol it is often utilized in Barok’s proudly South African work, although the archetypal lion takes on various guises, some more threatening than others. In this piece he seems to be closely associated with violence.
The fact that Barok’s creative methods are located in the female domain seems to give the commentary a particularly cutting edge. The value of what is perceived of as ‘strength’, particularly with regards to archetypically male qualities, is severely criticized. The lion, being a predator, is an aptly chosen symbol for a system that relies on brutality and intimidation to rise to the top.
There is a strange contrast between what I can only vaguely define as the ‘innocence’ of the creative method (working with cloth, embroidery and embellishment) and the disturbing content of the work. It creates a sense of unease as well as humour in an art form that is not often noted for engendering such responses! The result is a tongue-in-cheek quirkiness that is hard to define.
It is also worth noting perhaps that these are striking and eye-catching images, very suited to bold flag-like work. In particular the image of a lion also has many more positive qualities such as bravery and great-heartedness. 
Despite the presence of the fearsome banana republic griffin in XXX Extra Strong, the image of a leaping lion is undeniably a heartening one, the sort of thing one can imagine inspiring patriotism in the hearts of those inclined to it. In fact many of these wall hangings are inspired by the Fante Asafo flags of Ghana which are loosely based on military flags. Asafo are local "companies" of men that serve several purposes, from celebrating festivals, inaugurating chiefs and defending their town or village. The flags tell stories about the areas where they are from.
It seems that the women of Barok are telling a rather serious story about the world around us in a format that is unusual and eye-catching.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bronwen Findlay and Merle Payne of Barok & Nic Bladen

The first of today’s images by Bronwen Findlay is a particularly beautiful painting.  

A patchwork arrangement of textiles forms an under layer, creating an interestingly pleated and rippled surface for the paint. The paint creates a glowing façade over the fabric, sometimes enhancing the patterns below, sometimes obliterating them completely. The colours are rich and glowing offset by a deep pastel background and her use of paint is luxurious and free, echoing the organic nature of the subject matter and setting it lose from the stiff representations of the fabric design.
In the little painting below we can see an interesting technique she has developed in which she actually encases plant matter in paint.  

The oil paint keeps out air and moisture thus preserving the form of the beautiful spray of twigs and leaves. There is something both marvelous and vaguely disturbing in this piece of life smothered in paint. The vivid but translucent yellow of this particular piece is an apt choice in that it allows the natural colour variations of the plant to shine through to some extent, adding an extra depth to the subtle variation of tones.
This almost heirloom-inspired preservation of natural matter reminds me of the work of sculptor and jeweler Nic Bladen whose work is also featured in the Kalk Bay Modern. Bladen casts the most delicate fynbos flowers, leaves and pods in silver, creating a perfect preservation of these forms. Not only does their value lie in their exquisite beauty but also in their historical, botanical and environmental significance as records.
To see his beautiful website click on the link below.

The Barok bag seen below is a cheerful little piece that contrasts tartan, camouflage print, bright frilly trim and two ribboned medals. It is a particularly good example of Merle Payne’s technique of combining unusual materials to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Although there are four women besides Merle who are employed at Barok, she is responsible for the design of each and every item.

Her maxim though is “Many hands make a lot of work” with the result that previously unemployed rural women can now become financially independent and empowered and though their workshop is still small they are expanding slowly.

Monday, December 14, 2009

FIndlay and Payne - light and texture

Today I’ll be looking at the use of texture and light reflection in Bronwen Findlay and Merle Payne’s work.
The detail below is the corner of the wall panel by Merle Payne and Barok discussed in the last blog. 

While previously I focused on the originality of the design, one cannot fully appreciate textiles until one can see them close up (and ultimately – be able to touch them.) Barok uses only the finest materials to make their beautiful works, 100% cotton, silk and wool. The combination of these fabrics creates incredibly rich surface, one that is just begging to be touched. In this way the embroidery and appliqué remind me of braille and reiterate the feeling that one of the wonderful things about art of the female domain is its lack of highbrow aloofness – to be unable to touch artwork is something I am always restraining myself against and I know this is the case for many! The welcoming quality, the inclusiveness, of art of this genre makes it far more valuable and meaningful than it is often given credit for in what remains a largely patriarchal system.
Embellishment is central to Payne’s creative process and in particular she likes to fuse the textiles of different cultures creating a beautiful and moving hybrid. Sometimes her influences will be mainly African, utilizing the traditional embellishments of Xhosa, Venda, Zulu, Ndebele and Shangaan textiles, but she also collects and uses vintage fabrics which include Japanese prints.
In this particular piece, the addition of shiny light reflecting buttons adds another point of interest to the whole. Each button is individual and contains a tiny picture – worlds within worlds!
The sumptuous image below is the work of Bronwen Findlay and combines the use of textiles and paint in a way that marries the two wonderfully.

The antique gold present in the classic textile design is carried through the rest of the canvas in organic loops and swirls that echo the floral design of the cloth. The design of the cloth enters the domain of the paint and the paint runs into the fabric creating unity and a sense of flow and movement across the surface. The background is silver and an interesting tension develops between the two materials as the light catches the canvas from different angles. The use of light-reflective materials (the gold and silver paint) creates a work that interacts with light and movement.

I am reminded of a story about Monet attempting to paint pheasants. He was incredibly frustrated by the fact that if he moved back and forth the iridescent plumage flashed red or green or a combination of both but was never static. For an artist bent on pinning down the qualities of light one can imagine how frustrating this must have been.
In the case of Findlay’s painting, the work has become the pheasant (so to speak!) – It is a 3-dimensional object that reacts to light. It does not exist only on a two dimensional level as the representation of something but exists as a thing in itself - an art object rather than a straight painting.
In this respect the link to the work of Merle Payne resurfaces once again in the existence of an art-piece that is an object of value, a physical, non-abstract creation whose significance lies, not in the conceptual, but in the actual.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bronwen Findlay and Merle Payne of Barok - 1

Today I will be looking at two of the images on display at the moment in the 3000hours exhibition and giving a little background on the respective artists Merle Payne and Bronwen Findlay.
Bronwen Findlay is a well known South African artist, a painter and printmaker. She has been exhibiting frequently since 1977 and has been involved in many community upliftment workshops and projects. Although she does not wish to be exclusively defined as a feminist or female artist, much of her work is concerned with ‘the female domain’ and she seeks to challenge its status on the hierarchy of fine art practice. However paint as paint, the manipulation and interaction with it as a physical substance, is far more important to her process.
In the detail featured below we can see the delight she takes is slathering on paint freely and freshly, allowing it to have its own existence on the canvas beyond the function of representation. Texture has an all-important function in her work, inspired as it often is, by textiles.

For more information on her work see her website at the link below.

Merle Payne has been involved in many creative ventures, helping to blur the line between art and craft. For 20 years she created ‘vintage’ costumes for her company Pearls – creations so expertly made one could not tell they weren’t antiques. After working for a brief period in set-design for movies, she opened up her business incredibly successful business, Barok. Barok consists of Payne and four women from the local community of Magoebaskloof, the farm where Payne grew up. They started out making skirts end have branched out to wall panels, bags and cushion covers. All of Payne’s works on display in 3000hours are Barok products.
Shown below is one of my favourite of her wall panels.

This wonderful piece shows her quirky sense of design and sense of irony. The images of a lion and two crocodiles, both typically South African tourist images, are combined amusingly with two strange horned, humanoid creatures, who are involved in what seems to be (due to the arrows) an extremely animated conversation or perhaps a dance. A white aeroplane flying across the sky and the jaunty ‘100% local’ slogan contribute to an amusing and offbeat take on made-for-tourist products.
For an extremely interesting article on Merle Payne and Barok, featured in Dossier Magazine, click on the link below.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

3000hours Opening

Yesterday evening was the opening of a sumptuous new exhibition at the Kalk Bay Modern. It featured the elaborately embroidered textiles of Merle Payne and the rich, colourful textile-inspired paintings of Bronwen Findlay.  Entitled 3000 hours, the name refers to the approximate number of hours it took to make the work on display, including the labour of the four women Merle Payne hires for her (very inspirational) company Barok.
The show really was a visual feast of textures, colours and juxtapositions. A feature shared by both artist’s work is an incredibly tempting tactile quality – at one point I really had to fight myself not to run my fingers over some glowingly vermillion, amazingly three-dimensional flowers on one of Bronwen Findlay’s paintings! In fact I must admit that when I happened to be fairly far from anyone else (a rather difficult feat for the gallery was very lively) I did ever so gently give one of them a stroke!
The juxtaposition of Payne and Findlay’s work is extremely successful and wonderfully suited, I think, to the environment of the Kalk Bay Modern, a gallery that is refreshingly devoid of any ‘white-cube’ tendencies. Both artists are inspired by traditionally female creative outlets – textiles, embellishment, and colour for beauty’s sake. The rich abundance of their work is off-set by the beautiful collection of art, craft, jewelry and pottery hosted by the gallery – they create a wonderfully authentic setting for art that is meant to be lived with and loved – not coldly observed and contemplated.
Merle Payne’s work is inspired by the rich culture of textiles in and around South Africa. The works on display in 3000 hours include her wonderfully successful Barok bags and wall hangings. Each work is painstakingly embroidered and embellished creating an extremely desirable one off piece that (in the case of the bags) is a wearable piece of art. She utilizes slogans that are often funny or ironic whilst retaining a sweetness that is charmingly innocent and zany. In particular I have my eye on a bag on which the appliquéd image of a slinky leopard sits below the words ‘The Lord is My Sheppard and I am His Leopard’. 

Also featured are the textiles of Yda Walt, Veldt, the Ekoka San community project (more about that soon), Sway, Fabric Nation, and the Keiskamma Art Project. The Kalk Bay Modern is a strong supporter of local crafters and upliftment programmes.
More about these exciting artists and works soon!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I have one last Peter Clarke image to share with you, a woodcut print entitled Iris (undated). This is a particularly interesting work to discuss because it is a piece that Clarke himself considers to be very technically sound. There is also a quaint story as to its origin, which seems to demonstrate the holistic nature of Clarke’s work process. He discussed this piece at the Kalk Bay Modern in an interview with the Art Times just before the opening of A Hot and Quiet Evening.

These are his words on the piece
“It’s one of my best prints; technically it is a very good print…. It happens when you use the right kind of materials, and in this case I got a nice piece of old wood – it was actually part of a bedstead which somebody had dumped and then I rescued these pieces of wood. I got this piece of wood [gesturing to the print] and cut into it; it was like slicing through butter. And when I printed it – everything fell into place. So that is one of my favourites.”
His obvious enjoyment in telling the story highlights how the creative processes of an artist like Peter Clarke are not limited to the moment of creation. The finding of treasure in what was rubbish to another, the ‘rescuing’ of the wood – all these elements were integral to the creation of this work and it can be seen in the finished product.
The delicacy of Iris is quite different to many of Clarke’s pieces. While the speedily-carved immediacy of many of his prints is a fundamental part of their charm, the intricacy of the hatching in Iris and its gracefully formed bloom shows that its production was a time consuming labour of love.
In the same interview Clarke speaks about how much of his work, both visual and literary, is concerned with space, moods and stillness. These qualities are deeply present in this beautiful image. It is imbued with wonderfully atmospheric quality, the fine cross-hatching creating a gauzy web of lights and darks. The addition of a smoky blue and a hint of palest green create the atmosphere of rain and the white flower shines out against the moody background with a freshness that you can almost smell.
I can certainly understand why it is one of Clarkes’s favourites as it is teeming with the joy of creation and is indeed both a technical and intuitive masterpiece.
(Here is a link to the video of Peter Clarke at the Kalk Bay Modern on the Art Times page)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Peter Clarke biography

As we have come to the end of A Hot and Quiet Evening I thought I would share with you a short biography of Peter Clarke’s remarkable life.
He was born in Simonstown, 1929, Cape Town. Much of his work is inspired by this beautiful coastal village where he lived until 1972, when he was forced to move to Ocean View under the Group Areas Act. He still lives there to this day and works from home.
He left high school in 1944 and was a dock worker until 1956 when, aged 27, a three month holiday to Teslaarsdal, a small farming village near Caledon in the South West Cape, began his artistic career.  Equipped with art materials he had brought along with him he explored a variety of themes that one can see developing in his work throughout his career. Apart from working on and off as an artist’s model during the next two years, he had now begun his full-time occupation as an artist.
He studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town in 1961, the Rijks Academic van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam, Holland in 1962 and 1963, and Atelier Nord (Graphic Art Workshop) in Oslo, Norway in 1978 and 1979. He has received six international as well as six national awards for his art and writing and had more than 70 solo exhibitions since 1957 in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Australia, USA, Norway, Israel, Austria & the UK. He has also had many group shows in South Africa, Yugoslavia, Germany, Brazil, Austria, Italy, USA, Argentine, Norway, Botswana, Japan, Switzerland & France.
An important thing to note about Peter Clarke is the multifaceted nature of his creativity. He is not just a visual artist but also a writer and a poet and has works published both locally and internationally. ARTTHROB has a wonderful biographical article on him which quotes his own words on this situation: “Had I been triplets, it would have made it much easier because each could have his own job. There are times when I go through a writing phase and there are times for phases of picture-making but there is never a dull moment."
(To see ARTTHROB’s article click on the link below)

lamplight 2006

The Kalk Bay Modern will be presenting a new exhibition on Wednesday 9th December. Be sure not to miss 3000 Hours, an exhibition of painting and textiles by Bronwen Findlay and Merle Payne-Barok. The opening starts at 6PM and the show runs until 31st December.
It will also feature textiles by local South African designers Yda Walt, Veldt, Sway, Fabric Nation, Ekoka San Prints and Keiskamma Art Project Embroideries.

Monday, November 30, 2009

They’ve Always Got Something To Talk About & After They Went Away

Today’s images are They’ve Always Got Something To Talk About and After They Went Away. Neither is dated so I can’t tell if they were made at the same time but they are certainly very similar in style, both boldly carved prints in black ink, hand-coloured with watercolour.
Whether they are related or not, they have created in my mind another story and I am reminded again of the words of the Barbadian blogger, The Bajan Reporter: “His linocuts and woodcuts remind me for the most part of cels from an animated feature yet to be fully crafted, and I want to view the whole feature!”

(If you would like to view his blog click on the link below – there is also a wonderful clip of Bridget Thompson speaking at the opening of the Barbadian A Hot and Quiet Evening)

They’ve Always Got Something to Talk About is a delightful scene in which two women converse outside on a blustery day while a little girl – clearly the daughter of one of them – stands between them, uninvolved, apparently bored or perhaps just complacent – I imagine that it is from her thoughts that the title comes. 

The sensation of being outside in a real space is astonishingly apparent. Enormous, completely un-naturalistic clouds hover over the women and a small house in the distance – bloated and round like hefty water balloons. Set against a backdrop of heavy-looking black horizontal lines, the atmosphere feels taught and expectant – it seems likely that it is about to rain.
Perhaps this is the cause for the little girl’s long-suffering evaluation of the situation. Maybe the house in the distance is hers and she longs to get to it before the skies open up – or perhaps hers is still a way off and she has little hope of returning to it un-drenched.

Contrasting sadly with this charming, life-filled little scene is After They Went Away. While the first image is a moment in time, brief and changing as life is, in this second image the sad little house, dilapidated and overgrown, has about it an immense stillness. There is something slightly tragic about an abandoned house. While occupied, these human creations seem to take on a life of their own. When empty they seem to be in a state of waiting, as if hoping to return to life.

This feeling is undoubtedly caused by Clarke’s effective and poetic use of words in the title. ‘Abandoned House’ would not have resonated so forlornly within me but his words manage to anthropomorphise this inanimate object, creating a strange empathy with it. Through this subtle and strange twist in identification, the house seems to become a metaphorical object for human impermanence.
There is something strangely spiritual about the blue sky coming through the broken rafters and disintegrating thatch of the roof. The house’s solidity is being proven to be an illusion and it is slowly being taken back into nature, returning to the earth and oneness.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Peter Clarke - creative energy

I am currently doing an artists course entitled ‘The Artists Way’ which is supposed to encourage the creative process. While browsing through information on Peter Clarke for the purpose of writing today’s blog, I came upon a quote that seemed to explain Clarke’s creative energy. He is an incredibly prolific artist, having taken part in over 40 exhibitions since 1957 to the present day – that is at least one exhibition every one and a half years. On his process he comments, "I work when the idea strikes. I don't have a regime; while I work the ideas come. I'm not interested in waiting around for the muse."

His method – generating ideas through using the creative process – confirms for me the deep spirituality of Clarke’s work. The creative process has often been described as being spiritually driven, and Clarke’s words indicate an incredible harmony with this force that is splendidly and powerfully down to earth.

In June 2006 Peter Clarke spoke at an artist’s workshop at the Art and Ubuntu Trust and organisation dedicated to ensuring that the legacy of Ernest Mancoba, South African artist and philosopher, lives on so that it may enrich South Africa both socially and creatively. This is the organisation that worked in collaboration with the Kalk Bay Modern to put together a Hot And Quiet Evening.

(for more info see link below) 

His talk focussed on how a work of art has a life of its own once it is complete and viewed by other people. His personal example of this was seeing a photograph of Gerard Sekoto in a newspaper as he left for Paris. This experience had a great impact on his life, convincing him that a black man could become an artist – which could easily seem like a pipe dream whilst living during apartheid.

The fact that Clarke was so prolific during a time of such crushing ideology is amazing and awe-inspiring. That he continued to be prolific after the backdrop of his entire life and work started to fall away is even more amazing still and is the result of his flexibility and ability to change as the world changes.

The differences and similarities between Clarke’s work during the apartheid years and his work now are interesting to consider. He speaks about how after 1994 he felt the urge to start creating work that did not necessarily make ‘a statement’, as was expected of black artists during apartheid. 

I think that this sentiment – wanting to move beyond the statement – shows an incredible personal as well as artistic maturity. It can become easy for an artist to fall back on social criticism as a way of feeling relevant.
While social criticism certainly has its place in art, to think it is the pinnacle of art’s purpose (as some do) creates something incredibly narrow and stagnant and is, I think, a symptom of the need for art to be something grand and commanding – somehow an authority on life.

To get caught in the role of the critic is to never see life as it is exists in between the various unhealthy social constructs and mindsets that do undeniably exist. It is more important, more progressive, and more helpful I think to realise and be in tune with the beautiful, wholesome aspects of life that continue to exist on a day-to-day level in spite of various social ills. This living, breathing world, real, wonderful, painful, even prosaic, is the world that Peter Clarke depicts.

Art is relevant, not when it holds up a moralizing mirror to society but when it is the result of being deeply in tune with people, one’s own personhood and the spiritual, creative flow of life. A true artist is not one who stands by the wayside and criticizes but one for whom art is the by-product of living fully and presently, characteristics that Peter Clarke most certainly embodies.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Weeds Can Also Be Beautiful and Oupa en Ouma se Huis.

You can view a you-tube video clip of an interview, posted by the Art Times, with Peter Clarke at the opening of A Hot And Quiet Evening. Click on the link below to view.

Today we will be exploring the world of minutiae in which Peter Clarke finds inspiration. We will also be looking at how this relates to his interest in the day-to-day life of human beings.

Our first image is tiny itself, not more than a few centimetres across, a miniature linocut, hand coloured with water colour, entitled, Weeds Can Also Be Beautiful (undated). It is a charming little image in which the boldness of linocut (especially emphasised on such a small scale) is used to create a sweetly simple representation of a few odd little flowers, twigs and leaves. It immediately struck me as being a little metaphorical – after all most of Clarke’s work celebrates the wildflowers of humanity rather than the hothouse blooms.

The celebration of the quiet and the small has a depth and dignity which we often overlook in favour of the bold, dramatic and revolutionary. In this respect Peter Clarke’s work reminds of Zen and Taoist art and seems to embody these philosophies. The rhythmic spirit of natures in particular is important in Taoist art and we see this larger-than-human force entering individual lives in many of Clarke’s works, such as in the previously discussed Doing What We Have To Do, We Get On With Our Lives in which the stormy sky and flight of the birds are echoed by the crippled man in the centre of the village.

In fact the majority of Clarke’s works depicting human figures show them outside interacting with, or simply existing in, some element of the natural world. This particularly emphasises the smallness of these humans and their little lived as they are placed against the powerful and ancient forces of nature. In Weeds Can Also Be Beautiful we see how nature’s omnipresence also makes use of the very small.

The second image is entitled By Oupa en Ouma se Huis (2006). Here we see an old couple next to their man-made dwelling but, not surprisingly, they are sitting outside in the fresh air. When a human figure is shown indoors or in a cityscape it becomes larger than life – a godlike inhabitant of a world self-created and controlled. When we see people existing in nature we are given a more holistic perspective – one in which people are small and the universe is big.
This however does in no way make the small unimportant or unworthy of interest. The title of this piece means Next To Grandpa and Grandma’s House. A deep and loving interest is being shown in the life of an individual and a family, the smallest and second smallest unit of humanity. There is such a poignant beauty in this approach. It hints at a truth of being that is simpler and more profound than any of the philosophies in which humanity is glorified or damned, Underneath all existential angst or ecstatic ambition, we are all rather little creatures, merely parts of a very big world and this is the most beautiful, noble and joyful truth of all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bathers with Passing Yacht (1969) - Peter Clark

Bathers with Passing Yacht (1969) is the image I will be discussing today and it is such a luxurious picture that I feel sorely tempted to leave my desk and follow the example of the reclining figures.

The scene is a timeless, sundrenched day spent next to the sea, (quite possibly a scene from a harbour in Simonstown). The atmosphere is utterly familiar to me; it is so unmistakably Cape Town in the summer on one of those perfect days in which the air seems to contain something indescribable, both elating and soporific.
No doubt this is the sort of day which would precede the ‘hot and quiet evening’ of the exhibition title. This show was initially intended to introduce Barbadians to Cape Town and Clarke talks about the similarities between the weather of Cape Town and Barbados – the powerful storms and terrible winds, as well as the long hot summer days. There is something mysterious and connecting in the palpable effect that weather has on those who expose themselves to its vast but changeable phases.
The intense colouring of this woodcut creates the atmosphere of shimmering heat, a sense of air so warm it is almost solid. The figures are as natural and integrated into the landscape as a crowd of sea-gulls; they are overcome with the stillness and content that humans rarely experience away from the hypnotic sun and mesmerising sea.
The sea is slightly rippled by the gentlest wind – days on which the South Easter does not blow are always set apart; there is just enough of a breath to fill the white sails of the yacht, the lightest object both in terms of tone and gravitational quality. The horizontal lines of figures, land, and sea are as languorous and sedentary as their rich golden and copper colour while the crisp white of the ship offers a breath of fresh air. It is silhouetted against an almost purely abstracted background which could be sky or land. Its density, verticality, and vaguely cubist configuration convince me that it is the land on the other side of a bay, which encloses and cocoons the day’s warmth.

Knowledge (2006) - Peter Clarke

I was struck by the work Knowledge (2006) when I first saw it; it reminded me strongly of posters I recall gazing up at in junior school celebrating reading week or encouraging reading in general. These posters always seemed very important to me and I was always warmed by them – there were people in the world who knew how wonderful reading was and they were trying to encourage others to discover this. Then there were the posters stating the demographics of illiteracy rates in and around South Africa (and sometimes the world) and I discovered for the first time that there were people who had not been given the education that I had, that to refrain from reading was not always a choice, that the necessary tuition was not as abundant as tap-water (which again I went on to find out was not as abundant as I had thought).
Perhaps it is for these reasons that Knowledge strikes a chord in me. Books were a haven for me as a child and in books I came across, more than once, stories of people learning to read, or pursuing a higher education while struggling against the tide of their circumstances to do so, and I was always filled with awe. 
This image seems to encapsulate my experiences as I brushed against this other world. Even without the title, one can sense a story; the young man has a glow around him as he sits in a dark space. There is the hinted presence of a candle or some such humble lighting device that provides just enough light to see by (does this man study late at night after working a long day?  Is this his valued leisure time, savoured while others sleep?). The unspecified light-source also doubles as the aura of the world he is experiencing – for him nothing exists beyond the world his mind is occupying. The ability for the human mind to space-and-time travel into the imagination in this way is deeply mysterious; this experience alone may be as valuable as all the knowledge one may absorb from the writing itself.
I have noted the story-telling quality in Clarkes work in the previous blog but I think it is worth reiterating as it is such an integral feature to appreciating his work. It seems probable that it is the result of Clarke’s other creative outlet, poetry, having a natural and enriching influence on his printmaking and drawing. For Clarke, the combination of practices results in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The addition of the title ‘Knowledge’ lends a bold, archetypal quality to the delicate humanism of the implied story. It draws us away from the account of an individual (this young man and his private toil) and reminds us that each knowledge seeker is a tributary that joins up to a great ocean of collected experience.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I chose today’s images as examples of Peter Clarke’s interest and celebration of everyday life, especially within his own community. He works primarily with wood and linocuts, two similar print-making methods that enhance and complement the simplicity and honesty of his subject matter.

Coming From Shopping (1968) silhouettes a female figure against an autumnal background of trees, grass, flowers and sky. The stylized forms recall traditional African carvings and the minimalism of the figure casts her as an ‘everywoman’ of the community. She does what all must do, and do frequently. There is a brisk purposefulness to her figure – rendered nearly featureless due to our vantage point and the use of monochrome – which contrasts interestingly with the lively beauty of the natural background. She seems slightly disconnected from her surroundings; her mind is already occupied with her destination, home, and the tasks that lie ahead of her. She is not a lady of leisure to stroll slowly and luxuriate in the beauty of nature. She will cook, feed people, organise things; she has a lot to do. I like to think though that as she strides through the beautiful landscape she feels a lightness in her step and that unnamed pleasure that comes from being at one with oneself and ones surroundings, rather than a disconnected, if admiring, observer.
I like the relationship between this image and the next one which is entitled, Doing What We Do, We Get On With Our Lives (undated). It seems entirely possible that this should be the woman’s destination. The scene is of a small village, inhabited by characters with such human qualities that one almost feels they are the unnamed people that surround us on a daily basis, just a few of the many thousands that we do not form any particular connection with, but of whom we are peripherally aware, strangers, yet kin, all of us in the great mixing pot of humanity.

 Birds silhouetted against the sky show a favourite theme of Clarke’s. He has a fascination with birds that he says started when he was very young at an uncle’s funeral. He was a pigeon trainer and at the end of the ceremony great baskets of birds were let loose creating a flurry in the sky.
The birds certainly seem to convey a strange, slightly melancholy spiritual quality as they fly together across a brooding sunset sky. Below them in the centre of the village is the poignant figure, in a large overcoat, of a man on crutches. He is seen from behind, his head is dipped and he does not see the magnificent, startling flight of birds above him. But of all the characters he most seems to have a tie with them, in spite of, or perhaps because he is the least free to move.  His broken body has the mark of mortality upon it, invisible in the busy figures of the other folk; his shackles bring him closer to the moment when he will be free.
The evocative story-illustration power of Clarkes’ work was recently noted by Barbadian blogger, the Bajan Reporter after he exhibited A Hot and Quiet Evening in Barbados. As he put it, “His linocuts and woodcuts remind me for the most part of cels from an animated feature yet to be fully crafted, and I want to view the whole feature!”
Of course the story is that of Clarkes’ life and the life of his community and I look forward to sharing (and investigating) more images and stories over the next couple of weeks!