Symbolic relief: Clark re-surfaces in the 'ville

Michael Clark, untitled.

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.


Nice article for a passionate, brilliant artist and also a very nice, kind man.

Big Jerry lived a few doors down from my parents' house in Lynchburg. Back in the early '70's, he would walk door-to-door, seeing cash donations. As he became more and more successful at raising money, he acquired a huge house, several fancy cars (his kids drove Porsches by the time they were of age) and wore a diamond-studded Rolex watch, among other material possessions.

All the while, Jerry stuffed his face with food. He suffered from "the sin" of gluttony and it eventually killed him. Bottom line: Jerry was full of crap,literally and figuritively.

Porsches - hardly! Dr. Falwell himself drove a black GMC with dings and dents from where the man could hardly drive. And Jerry Jr. drives a beat up little truck around campus when he's checking things out. And what about the fact the Jerry also sold his own home in the 90's to save the university and lived in a house donated by a church member after that?? Doesn't sound like a money hungry man to me. Do I joke about the university asking for money all the time, of course. I even placed a bet that the paper they handed us at graduation in place of our diploma would ask for money, but only because he wanted to see the university have a lasting legacy.