Symbolic relief: Clark re-surfaces in the 'ville
It’s always fun when a straightforward question leads to an unexpected answer. That’s what happened with Michael Clark, whose mixed-media paintings are currently on display in the McGuffey Art Center’s upstairs gallery.
Clark’s show encompasses two distinct bodies of work. On the gallery’s west side, Clark employs an array of symbols (think Wingdings gone wild) in colorful, often abstract compositions. On the east side, he displays quieter, photography-based works in buff and grey or sepia that reverse negative and positive space while depicting exterior scenes. What unites these two chapters is Clark’s technique of embedding images in a three-dimensional surface reminiscent of aging plaster.
Intrigued by the pieces’ tactile beauty and baffled by how Clark achieved it, I called to ask him about his method. Clark explained he developed his techniques while constructing sets, designing signage, and painting murals for numerous Hollywood productions. During a15-year stint in the entertainment biz, Clark worked on numerous movies and television shows– e.g. Hannibal and The Client– as well as 50 or 60 commercials.
Having put L.A. in his rearview mirror, Clark now runs the Good Paint Company, which specializes in unusual finishes (ever wonder who did the wall murals at Cassis?), and he designs interactive exhibitions for the Discovery Museum. In his off hours, he makes art.
Which brings us back to the mystery of Clark’s technique. It turns out he sculpts his surfaces using joint compound and then paints his pieces using traditional staining and watercolor techniques.
The results are compelling. Clark’s compositions have a graphic immediacy, yet their pocked and marred surfaces imbue them with the weight of age, as if artifacts of the present seen in the future (a sensation enhanced by the rsepia tones of several photographic pieces). His abstract paintings, whirling with de-contextualized symbols– numbers, telephones, bird skeletons, arrows– seem like dynamic pictographs that fascinate yet remain indecipherable, their language lost.
Clark is at his best when working big (perhaps reflecting his background in murals). His two large abstracts, resembling churning galaxies, offer so much to see that it’s hard to turn away. Likewise, his largest photographic image, in which two electrical towers rise above a scrubby landscape, is also his most successful. But unlike Clark’s energetic abstracts, this rust-tinged work draws its power from a quiet, almost melancholic starkness.
Hollywood may be superficial, but Clark’s compelling surfaces are rich with depth.
Michael Clark’s mixed-media paintings are on view in the upstairs hall gallery of the McGuffey Art Center through November 23. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.