Charles Clough review by Giulia Smith
‘O My Goodness! is one painting, a series of painted, photographic, inkjet print ‘portraits’ of the painting, a book and a movie - a singularity of great multiplicity’. With this list Charles Clough introduces his solo exhibition at White Columns, preparing the spectator for a meticulously cerebral experience that is less about looking than its frustration. The artist began to work on ‘O my Goodness!’ in 2009, taking about two years to fabricate a system of reproductions and permutations that would undermine the authenticity of an original work on canvas, itself titled O My Goodness! In line with this erosive rationale, at White Columns the original painting hangs on a par with all its ‘by-products’ and the display unfolds to the equalizing rhythm of seriality. One after the other we encounter a book about the painting, a sequence of watercolours that mimic its dynamic brushstrokes, the canvas itself, a video montage of its making, three life-size copies and a series of smaller reproductions with added amendments. What at first looks like a straightforward installation soon turns into a hall of mirrors where the sole optical option is twitchy crosschecking without resolution in sight - literally. Hence the title’s humorous exclamation, an apt reaction to such an overload of (mis)matching information.
Greeting the spectator at the entrance is a wall covered by the pages of Clough’s artist’s book, enough to configure a large-scale paper mural telling us the story of the making of O My Goodness! through stills and diaristic notes published in chronological order. It does not take very long to figure out that to start with the pictorial process was an extremely intricate one. Clough painted twenty different pictures alternated with sessions of ‘un-painting’, so that the image on view at White Columns is only the tip of a far larger iceberg of cancellations. What we see is a work of ‘happy brushstrokes’ (Clough’s own words), an eye-punching melange of colours in line with the artist’s neoexpressionist canvases from the 1980s. Yet, beneath the surface lies a scrapped palimpsest that could not be further away from gestural abstraction. From ancient Egypt to Christianity, the artist painted more than a dozen ‘salutations’ to bygone religious cults, a slightly baffling choice of theme that plays into the witticism of the exhibition’s title.
Perhaps not all that disorienting though, as historical quotation is yet another strategy to undermine originality and must be read against the background of the artist’s formative years working with masters of artistic appropriation like Cindy Sherman, who with him was part of the so-called ‘pictures generation’. What makes the exhibition at White Columns particularly remarkable is precisely a latent penchant for personal historisation. His first solo show in New York in nearly a decade, ‘O My Goodness’ finds Clough at a delicate stage in his career, where he is no longer a young artist affiliated with emerging trends, but his name does not resonate ubiquitously (yet). This condition is not uncommon in the art sector, even though it is publicly overlooked, which makes Clough’s autobiographical pastiche all the more relevant. From the serial modus operandi of conceptual art, which reigned over the American art scene during the artist’s formative years, to the physical sensuousness of his own brand of painterly expressionism, the exhibition stages a unique concoction of citations. Framing this exuberant archive is of course the deconstructive lesson imparted by the artists of the ‘pictures generation’. Faithful to their romance with parody, Charles Clough seeks a place in the present by turning the installation into a fictional palimpsest of his own techniques.
Where Clough plunges into naïve reiteration is in his attempt to boycott the market. According to him, the exhibition at White Columns offers a critique of the art world economy in that it comes with de-pricing inbuilt: the movie can be downloaded for free, the book is sold at consumer price point, the printed copies of the painting are offered at collector price point and the original canvas is priceless insofar as it is displayed. Notwithstanding these preventive measures, it is hard to believe that sooner or later Clough’s artefacts will not meet the same fate of countless other tokens of institutional critique dating from the 1960s and 1970s, which now can only be purchased at exorbitant prices. Perhaps it will take longer, but eventually each component of ‘O My Goodness’ will be valued as a unique collectible. Ultimately, Clough’s blindness to the contradictions to which de-pricing is destined leaves one with the sad suspicion that nostalgia might play a far greater role in the show than originally envisioned.