When Brian Clarke (b. Oldham, Lancashire, 1953) looks around, he sees a world of lines. He has drawn constantly ever since he was a child and he regards everything he sees as a potential subject. His stained glass windows have brought him worldwide fame and commissions for them have come from places as far apart as Saudi Arabia and New York.
This is the first exhibition in the Netherlands ever to feature his paintings, which combine abstract compositions with figurative emblems in the shape of Spitfires, Porsches, fleurs-de-lis or crosses. For the Gemeentemuseum’s Projects Gallery, where exhibitors are asked to produce artworks that respond to the architectural space, Clarke is this summer creating an offbeat installation composed of eight large-scale paintings, three of which are impressive triptychs.
Brian Clarke comes from a working class background. He ascribes his love of art mainly to his father, who was a miner but made wonderfully decorated wedding and birthday cakes for family and friends. As a little boy, watching his father carefully icing the cakes, Clarke gradually discovered his own urge to create. At 12, he won a scholarship to the Oldham School of Arts and Crafts. Later, he moved on to Burnley School of Art and North Devon College of Art and Design, where he developed his talent for drawing. What fascinates him is the process of transferring what he sees in front of him to the two-dimension surface of the paper. He proceeds almost as a land surveyor might, using reference marks and indications of front and back that evolve into a powerful means of expression. His fascination with line soon brought Clarke into contact with the stained glass tradition. He spent time in Munich to learn the finer points of stained glass and glass painting and in the early ’80s became famous for his work in the medium.
What is striking about Clarke’s paintings is the looseness of his drawing. It sometimes looks reckless or ‘unthinking’, but this is deceptive: everything in his pictures is carefully composed, meticulously considered and tightly organised. The paintings that Clarke has produced for this show at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag are all constructed in the same way. Working on a dark background, he has used a white oil stick to draw a series of identical motifs – outlines of Porsches, Spitfires or fleurs-de-lis – forming a continuous strip across the entire breadth of the canvas. Under this strip, he has painted abstract planes of colour, the edges of which are entirely separate from the motifs: the paint never touches the outline. As in his stained glass windows, he is attentive to the space between the various colour planes. The dark backgrounds of his paintings are likewise reminiscent of those in his works in glass. The light-absorbing black makes the colours appear all the more vivid.
Clarke’s fascination with the unique quality of outlines was roused by the large tool board at his first school. The right place for each tool was indicated by a painted silhouette of the object. An outline of that kind is impersonal and lacks the individuality of the object, but if the outline is interrupted by a scratch or slip, it will suddenly reveal a character all its own.
The new installation in the Projects Gallery is inspired partly by Monet’s water lily paintings. The viewer will be completely surrounded by Clarke’s paintings, just as Monet was surrounded by his pictures of water lilies in the space where he spent years creating them.