KELLY CLARK (1998)
Winnipeg Art Gallery and Gallery One One One
[First published as a review entitled "Face Value" in the August 1997 issue of Winnipeg's Border Crossings magazine, 66-67.]
Curator Donalda Johnson was brave to bring the subject up. She argues that drugs and drink wasted at least some of Clark's talent. Others forgive Clark's substance abuse because, as the Winnipeg Free Press headline put it, his "genius erupt[ed] like hot lava" (Garth Buchholz, WPF June 27 1998).
The debate about whether alcohol and drugs were essential to Clark's--or any other artist's--aesthetic existence may have distracted the odd impatient viewer from Clark's art, but I think the question is important. The aesthetic impact of alcohol and drugs depends on the aesthete: Clark seemed to have needed to get high. Explaining the drugs in the art and the art in the drugs in his life would require a full-fledged biography or maybe one or two more retrospectives. Johnson has initiated an important debate--let's see where it goes.
This is my contribution: it is odd to condemn an artist for drinking instead of, say, jogging. Talent and dissolute living are mixed up both in the popular culture of contemporary art (which has shaped many an artist's self-image since at least the Bohemia of the 1830s) and also, witness Clark, in many contemporary lives. Clark's story reminded me instantly of Gulley Jimson's, the threadbare alcoholic hero of Joyce Carey's novel The Horse's Mouth. Jimson was an invention of Carey's, but also a composite of many mid-century English art characters. Indeed Johnson's (as yet unpublished) catalogue essay begins with a quotation from Carey's novel and the testimony of George Swinton, Clark's friend and teacher, who relates that he himself often compares Clark to Jimson.
Johnson and Swinton seem right in implying that Clark was a product of Jimson's mid-century English version of bohemia and its aesthetic myths. That scene was essentially conservative (even for 1944 when Cary wrote his book), big-R Romantic and floating in booze. Within the larger art world English art at mid-century has been seen rightly to be mostly eccentric and backward-looking. The fictional Jimson and the living Clark were plainly not updated versions of a hero like Van Gogh, who was a bohemian but also an aesthetic radical. They made no revolutionary or radically innovative art but instead lived their version of an aesthetic life in terms of the bohemian archetype of an artist. One of the unwritten goals of artistic bohemia is to maintain status as a bohemian person with conventional art of the highest possible quality: the goal is to aestheticize a transgressive life through art.
After an apprenticeship Clark's sort of artist tends to make expressionistic art.
The young late-1950s Kelly Clark was a talented magpie. He made Braque and Dubuffet-like works, and even Pollock-inspired ink drawings (one called Man Blowing His Brains Out); he diligently painted his way through Soutine, Bacon, and CoBrA, and he absorbed the painterly traditions with great technical proficiency. But as he matured Clark ignored, as so many English and English-trained artists did at the time, all the new 1960s American and European-based art movements--even Pop Art which had post-war English origins. Minimalism, Op art, Arte Povera and Conceptual Art had no influence on him. My guess is that it was either Clark's immersion in the isolated milieu of mainstream post-war English art which lead him toward the nostalgia and artistic conservatism of his mature work, or his conservative and bohemian predilections in art lead him to England.
As a mid-century expressionist--a Gulley Jimson, the kind of artist who associated savage marks with emotional turmoil and languid lines with peacefulness--Clark was ever verging on the edges of abstraction without completely crossing the line.
Sincerity is important to an expressionist painter. A viewer is expected to read the work in a straightforward way, without irony and without, for example, some complicated post-modern spin. (Expressionists would find it difficult, for example, to match a beautiful painting of Nova Scotia's Peggy's Cove with the Swiss Air disaster-- a tortured psyche requires a tortured surface. Allegory is rare in expressionist art.)
Clark characterized his life in a set of Matrushka dolls (shown at Gallery III) made in 1993 for a Border Crossings fund raiser called Five Steps in the History of the Artist. The five dolls represent "Ink," "Faces," "Top Hat," "Delta," and "Trees." There is no progression in the themes, no logical order--nor should there be. Clark absorbed the rules of expressionism early and made pit stops amongst other styles after a brilliant apprenticeship for commercial or fanciful purposes: his artistic phases were not linear.
Clark began his artistic life with talent, developed considerable skills, made uneven work and died tragically. The low point is the Magritte-inspired Top Hat series: tedious exercises in the illustrative conventions of 1970s graphic design and popular illustration. The Delta watercolours, executed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mark the high point of Clark's art. In his maturity and in his best work Clark came into his own as a conservative landscape artist of the English Romantic tradition. The pastels and mixed media Delta works may be overworked, but the bloom of sky in a Delta watercolour is beautiful enough to justify an artistic life.