Eloquence From Intractability
Martin Harrison on Brian Clarke
Clarke’s paintings generate his abstract language and life drawing is a vital discipline in his art. Painting reflects light whereas glass transmit light and its constant changes in the quality of light, its kinetic modulation which attracts Clarke to stained glass. He does not use opaque paint for this reason, using only the glass and lead.
The paradox of glass art is that it is inextricably linked to architecture therefore ignored in the art world who view architecture as commodity capitalism. Clarke combines both roles as painter and glass artist, without compromise. There is as symbiotic relationship with both disciplines running in parallel. Before the renaissance art wasn’t anything other than ‘applied’ art yet critics have a problem with the ‘craft’ element of stained glass. Maybe the ecclesiastical links deter serious appraisal.
Clarke leant about the Pre-raphaelites during his time at Burnley School of Art. They also designed stained glass, which was fabricated by William Morris’ firm, and this did not seem to be detrimental to their painting. Ruskin’s dictum of “truth to materials” where involvement in all the craft process would lead to better design. Clarke’s craft training will enable him to instruct fabricators, unlike the Pre-Raphaelites who did not involve themselves with the craft process at all. From 1978, with the increase in the scale of his work and the time consuming nature of craft, Clarke now has his windows made outside his studio.
In 1974, Clarke was awarded a Winston Churchill Trust Travelling Fellowship which allowed him to travel to Germany. Britain was a creative vacuum and particularly slow to embrace modernism in the 1930s, and like architecture, the leading exponents of stained glass were not British. Ironically, “Das Englische Haus” by Hermann Muthesius in 1904 was a major influence to modernist architects, who eventually migrated to the Werkbund. During this time grew a flourishing stained glass school inspired by Jan Thorn Pikker who in 1921 rejected symbolist and expressionist styles of his earlier work to embrace geometric abstraction. This was important to Clarke who found there was no modern British glass movement for him to align himself and found that Europe offered a framework for his own ideas. In Germany, Clarke was able to locate stained glass from notable pioneers such as Josef Albers and members of the Dutch De Stijl group. These artists used a gridded format for their paintings and this gridded matrix is the basis for his compositions. Also during this first trip to Germany, Clarke made contact with artist Johannes Schreiter, who although worked in glass was first and foremost an artist.
Clarke began to realise that he was working within the traditions of Constructivism. His essay “Towards a New Constructivism” in 1979 he echoed the belief that the distinct disciplines of architecture, painting and craft should be dissolved. He was also affected by the dialogical tension between the static and dynamic, order and chaos. This duality remains at the core of his art. The architectural context provides the starting point for the designs. The static, ordered, structural defines the architectural space. The chaotic, dynamic elements act as contrasting counter-points, subtly eroding it.
The inclusion of grids and a more abstract approach meant that by 1977-78 Clarke and the Church of England parted company, when he refused to bow down to their impositions. He was now able to work on large-scale secular commissions and the repetition of patterns and grids in his work has drawn comparisons to minimalist music, inducing rhythmic meditative states.
Clarke embarked on the first of a group of projects for roof spaces at Buxton Thermal Baths in 1987. These require an alternative approach as there is an absence of contrast between window and wall. He provides the ‘frame’ and therefore he becomes the architect himself. Usually stained glass reduces the transmission of light and also encloses the interior space, creating a curtain. At Haus Der Energie, Kassel in Germany, he opens up the interior space. The outside is drawn into the composition, subverting the two-dimensional aspect of the window by introducing exterior imagery and perspectives. At night, lit from within, the views of the window from the outside are equally compelling. The ‘disorder’ of organic shapes within the rigid geometry presents a spiritual polarity, a dualistic tension. Organic elements ‘Amorphs’ have preoccupied Clarke’s work and have become increasingly dominant, subvert the formality of the grid but he has integrated these diverse elements and his responses to a space are governed by aesthetic and functional need of the building.