Brian Clarke: The Art of Light
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
17 June - 14 October, 2018
Review by Paul Black
Stained glass artist Brian Clarke can remember when the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts was merely a sketch on the back of a napkin. The napkin belonged to architect Norman Foster, and the sketch utilised a unique approach - integrating building with landscape - using the style of structural expressionism. The centre is now celebrating its 40th anniversary, situated on the edge of the University of East Anglia’s campus - housing the collection of Lord and Lady Sainsbury, gifted to the university in 1973.
Considering this integration, it would seem fitting that the ‘finally-celebrated’ artist should take advantage of the centre’s grand windows, which not only form a relationship between the art and the external green vistas, but also allow works to be seen in natural light - expressing the building’s environmental integration - which is currently illuminating the installation of over 30 works from the artist’s oeuvre.
Unfortunately for Clarke’s early career, it was not ‘de rigueur’ for artists to hang out with celebrities – so when the artist first appeared on the London scene in the 1970s and did exactly that [he is long-standing friends with Paul McCartney and Jules Holland] - this diminished Clarke’s artistic reputation among his peers.
Yet the artist has always exhibited a ‘punkish’ vitality – and now that particular energy can be seen flooding out - lensed by the artist’s powerful use of colour, communicating the richness of the material and its history. Yet Clarke’s use of stained glass never once evokes the ecclesiastical.
The artist has installed some 30 freestanding stained glass screens - forming the centrepiece of Clarke’s ambitious exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre - using the backdrop of its monumental windows. The collection forms a maze-like installation piece created out of individual works produced over the last three years.
Whether through the use of natural light, or in other areas of the exhibition, synthetic: light is an intrinsic element of Clarke’s work. The artist’s rather Warholian ‘Ordinary Man’, 2007 [one of Clarke’s leaded works] is lit with synthetic light, a lifeless artificial medium in contrast to the metamorphic qualities of natural light. Strikingly reminiscent of Warhol’s ‘Self-portraits and Skulls’ series, ‘Ordinary Man’ is a work reflecting loss - the iconic face of death, stylised yet still disturbing - therefore the artist’s particular use of lifeless artificial light seems a fitting correlation.
Clarke also paints with light, reflecting poetic and emotional states via a deft use of colour and the juxtaposition of material and environment. In stark contrast to the artist’s ‘Ordinary Man’, Clarke’s aforementioned stained glass maze becomes transformative. The works become ‘projectors’ of light - with colours slowly stretching out across the exhibition space - as the sun sets on the university campus. Colour interacts and transforms when illuminated by natural moving light - or remains mute and cold via the illumination of still synthetic light.
Yet Clarke’s practice has been somewhat misconstrued, the artist’s material is not glass; the glass is in fact the artist’s lens. Clarke’s ‘material’ is light itself.