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Charles Clough's Paintings at UB Center for the Arts

Charles Clough's Metron (1998). From the collection of Robert Longo and Barbara Sukowa.

Clough Trade

Artist Charles Clough has little regard for the idea of originality. “Originality is merely theoretical,” he has written, “all things originate in other things.” Yet his artwork looks not quite like anything ever seen or done before. Mighty swirls and smears and blots of disparate colors, and forms that defy formal description. Monster forms that seem to emerge of their own accord out of the blots and smears and swirls, as original creations.

A retrospective exhibit of Clough’s work is on display at the University of Buffalo Center for the Arts gallery. It should be seen in conjunction with the current exhibit on the 1970s art scene in Buffalo at the Albright-Knox, a focal point of which was the founding of the Hallwalls gallery and community by Clough and a coterie of fellow young artists at the time.

Clough’s art is ever expansive, breaking through boundaries, going beyond. Starting out as a painter and photographer—at a time when painting was having a crisis of confidence, basically because of the entry of photography full-fledged into the art world, photography seeming a more able and agile medium, or really technology, in what was clearly become a new age of technology, painting seeming a little slow and staid by contrast, a little limited, he nonchalantly combined and integrated the two media—he then expanded to video and the creation of photos cum video documentaries of the myriad temporal stages in the production of a single artwork. Documentaries of the artist’s work processes, his thought processes.

The documentarian impulse, as well as a certain artistic obsessional quality, appeared early on. He would produce, as artworks of a sort, as second-stage artworks, tall archive stacks of uniform 8.5-by-11 paper which he had filled with every kind of primary work, from drawings and photo contact sheets to diaristic entries, personal correspondence, sudden insights and inspirations. The attraction to standard-dimension sheets morphed into an attraction to irregular sheets, collaged into large irregularly shaped artworks in boisterous, frenetic color schemes. Vermiform and vaguely human forms, more vermiform than identifiably human. Or more specifically, abstractive of human forms, at a chromosomal level. Recognizably X and Y forms. With occasional photo bits incorporated among the collage items, half-hidden under the vigorously and generously applied paint. In terms of painting/collage imagery, much in the way of chance effects, accidental forms. In one place in his writings on his artwork, Clough discourses on the aesthetic utility of paint blots versus clearly delineated forms. The blot, he writes, “will suggest different ideas to different persons,” wherefore it serves to “enlarge the powers of invention.”

And going back as well as forward. In a radically back-to-basics move, he adopted the kid-art-associated technique of finger-painting as his principal paint application method. This later got expanded into his invention of the so-called “Big Finger,” a kind of large sponge or pad on the end of a long stick, augmenting artistic reach and facilitating production of larger and larger paintings and paint application by the bucket. The “Big Finger” was invented in 1985 as a solution for a mural project for the grandiose lobby space of the Brooklyn Museum, but then he adopted it as a regular technique, for his own studio canvases as well as for a famous audience-participation artwork creation project at Artpark in 1992. One of the more successful results of the Artpark project is on display in the current exhibit, Arena, the largest work in the exhibit, 108 by 210 inches. Nearly 160 square feet of canvas.

And going back in terms of a lifelong dogged interest—a little anomalous in the modernist abstractionist context—in art history. In Impressionism—in an unusual art project, he applied paint can remnants to a zodiac array of old tee shirts spread out on his lawn; the results, viewed close-up, look like Monet paintings viewed close-up—and pre-Impressionism back to the Renaissance. Titian. His art history explorations include finger overpaintings of art book reproductions of major historical artworks. A masterwork of this type, in the collection of the Albright-Knox, is his Study after Courbet, based on Courbet’s great Burial at Ornans. Like derivatives in calculus, which are formulas within formulas, his works in this personal abstractionist genre depict forms within forms. His painting in the Summer-Best subway station, Sparky, is of this sort. Though harder to see. Said to be based on Charles Burchfield.

Ultimately, several of the “Big Finger” examples could be seen as similarly abstractionist versions of art historical forms, without the specific work underlay. Or better, category of art historical forms. In visual terms and in terms of the extension of reach connotations—actual and metaphorical or metaphysical—of the “Big Finger” device, calling to mind baroque era consummate painterly effect church dome interior depictions of celestial visions, usually at a moment of some significant earth to heaven transitional event. Visions of hieratically arranged ranks of saints and angels, culminating at the peak of the dome in a fairly blinding Dantean heavenly light, the light of God, the light of glory. One of the most beautiful of the “Big Finger” works is aptly titled Gloria.

Several recent works are multiply palimpsestic, involving numerous successive paintings and sanding or grinding down of the paint surface, then repainting and regrinding, the multiple steps captured in photographically and videographically. All on display, along with, in one case, the artwork original and an exact—as far as the human eye can tell—duplicate of the original in a pigmented inkjet print. So much for any remnant notion of a single and unique art object in an age of technology.

A number of community events are scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit, including a public invited to watch and participate if so moved creation of a “Big Finger” painting in the parking lot of the UB Anderson Gallery, May 19, 1 to 3 p.m.

The Center for the Arts exhibit was organized by Sandra Q. Firmin, who wrote an excellent overview essay for the exhibit catalog. It continues through May 19.

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