Sit back and enjoy the performance, writes John Neylon, as Andrew Clarke is a local artist worth watching.
Imagine having the skills to draw and paint the human figure with conviction and flair. But with facility comes the burden of what to say and how to say it. In the work of German Expressionists (Francis Bacon, Wilhelm de Kooning, Lucien Freud and others) figurative art into the 20th century became a vehicle through which inner states of feeling about the human condition could be expressed. But where did this leave artists who, in one sense, just want to make images of people without subjecting their subjects to being hung, drawn and quartered – or in service to some ‘message’?
Enter the ‘problem picture’. This genre of art, which was very popular in the late Victorian, adopted the strategy of scattering a painting with clues provided by various characters in the way they interrelated with each other, the setting and various ‘prop’ items such as letter, a knife or dining table. A well-known historical example is William Frederick Yeames’ And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1878) which depicted a boy being interrogated by Cromwellian troops who were looking for his Royalist father. Tellingly, this genre has much in common with storybook art in that it invites the viewer to read clues to solve a paradox.
Andrew Clarke has come out of the blocks early. He had his first exhibition (Floating Goose Studios) in 2014 while an art student, was a finalist for the 2015 Moran Prize, and was selected for the Archibald Salon de Refuses in 2016. Looking at his work it is easy to see why he has attracted attention. His handling of the paint medium is assured and increasingly more adventurous. His drawing skills are strong. More importantly, he is a visualiser: someone who conveys the impression that he has seen or imagined something worth sharing. This matters because his preferences lie in part with this idea of the problem picture.
His imagery invariably consists of a tight group of people (usually fellow artists) assembled in some kind of theatrical tableau and interacting with each other in the quirkiest of ways.
Why, for example, two people should be totally fixated on a yellow vacuum cleaner, or a pear, or another, lugging around a case full of bricks, is beyond rational explanation. It is tempting to read some improbable parable-for-our-times into these intriguing images. But the calculated, robust nature of the paintwork deflects such a reading.
Clarke clearly has the skills to create polished, surreal images that would sit comfortably within familiar genres and tropes associated with the overexcited imagination. But, at this stage of his development, he is very much a painter, someone who is as much interested in what the medium can do and say as what it might illustrate. That’s the ‘how do you say it bit’ under control. What about the ‘what do you say’?
The challenge for Clarke at this stage in his development is to develop a relationship with his cast of characters and scenarios without getting too friendly because, at some time in the future, he may need to kill his little darlings. Right now they enjoy a lot of freedom, hamming it up in the interest of absurdist humour, much like cabaret performers cast as serious actors in a Waiting for Godot piss-take.
If looking for some context in which to position Clarke’s art, then be prepared to cast a wide net. There are lingering echoes of the formative influence of Caravaggio and Vermeer. One work, Honey Nut Crunch (after Vermeer) foregrounds the latter influence, not only in title but the stylistic affectation of broken pixels of paint and the central compositional role of milk being poured echoing the same motif in Vermeer’s The Milk Maid.
Spread the net further and you may encounter a rich vein of influence that encompasses the metaphysical surrealism of de Chirico, the figurative edginess of German New Realism (modernist/realist movement of the 1920s) morphing into art associated with the New Leipzig School (NLS) of post-reunification of modern Germany characterised by audacious juxtapositioning of figurative and abstract elements. Clarke’s twilight zones of reality find counterparts in the work of NLS-associated artist Neo Rauch and, particularly, another German artist, Sebastian Schrader. Comments made about Schrader’s work such as “anti-heroes, daydreamers, narcissists and clown figures … appearing to be waiting, locked within the frame in limbo” might easily be applied to Clarke’s current work.
My suggestion is to throw the net wider to consider how close in spirit these paintings are to Claes Oldenburg’s Store of 1961 with its shop window displays of commonplace objects. But look in the other direction and you are in Commedia dell’arte territory at the mercy of the zanni. At present, Clarke’s mask shows no sign of slipping so don’t look for answers. Just sit back and enjoy the performance.
Mephistopheles’ Yellow Vacuum Cleaner
Hill Smith Gallery
Until Saturday, September 1
Header image: Andrew Clarke, Perhaps it’s only run short of batteries (detail.), 2018, Oil on canvas, 51 x 39cm