White space meets color in a 'Lyrical' way
Lenox gallery showcases Berkshire Renaissance man's artistic repertoire
LENOX — It isn't rare to behold photographs that don't look like photographs hanging at Sohn Fine Art. What's far less common is seeing another art form at a gallery known for its contemporary photography.
John Clarke's first solo show at Sohn offers both. In "Lyrical," gallerygoers can check out pieces that demonstrate the artist's painting and drawing techniques as well as mixed-media creations that combine this handwork with photography. On view through Feb. 3, the exhibition captures the Housatonic Renaissance man's multitude of artistic interests, including his affinity for music.
"Music still continues to be, not only an inspiration, but actually part of my work process," he said at the gallery on Wednesday.
During a nine-month span just over a decade ago, Clarke produced 15 pieces for Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro, Vt., while repeatedly listening to the same CD: "Alina" by Estonian composer Arvo P rt.
"Every time I would turn it on, it would cast the same spell, and I could get right back into the workflow," he said.
His oil, pastel, pencil and gesso on paper "Alina Series" works are visual responses to this classical sound. He painted and drew in a room above Holly Hamer's Mill River Studio in Great Barrington, where he had been hired as a framer.
"I learned that my response to music was so pure that I oftentimes worked at night with the lights off, even with my eyes closed. It was just that complete physical response to the music," said Clarke, who majored in classical music composition at Bates College and fronted the local rock band Bell Engine until several years ago.
Multiple 50-inch-by-38-inch "Alina Series" works from 2007 line a wall to viewers' right upon entering the space. Often resembling semicircles, shapes abound.
"People call them crescent moons or bird's wings or, if you turn the other way, boats, [but] they have no literal meaning for me," Clarke said while examining "Untitled No. 7." "It's just a fascination with different shapes."
The works feature intense concentrations of colors yielding to white areas.
"Somebody at the opening said, 'It's almost like when you're walking down the street, and you can hear music coming out of someone's apartment. Maybe the window's open, and you can't quite — you don't hear the whole song. You can't even maybe necessarily catch the tune, but you can hear it, and then it's gone,'" he recalled hearing at the Dec. 8 reception.
Negative space returns in a few of Clarke's works that layer pastel and pencil onto archival pigment prints.
"They're handworked, one-of-a-kind pieces with a photographic base," he said.
He usually takes pictures at dusk, allowing him to leave the exposure open for a second or two without risking overexposure.
"By using a long exposure and moving the camera gently, it ends up softening the capture to be almost like a pastel drawing," he said.
But in "Branches No. 1," "Branches No. 2" and "Autumn," he shot in the middle of the day.
"When Cassandra [Sohn, the gallery's owner] and I discussed the overarching umbrella of the show, it was a move away from these guys where the photographic capture filled the whole space to more like the original 'Alina' drawings from 10 years ago where all the white space played an equal part in the composition," Clarke said. "So, by doing a one-to-two-second exposure in the daytime, I was able to just soften everything to almost [be] not there, and everything else just got blown out."
"Autumn" (2018) is perhaps his closest recent creation to the original "Alina" style. The photograph can barely be detected beneath the pencil and pastel.
"The real abstract drawer and painter in me just attacked this one like a pure abstract work. There was really no reference except the colors," Clark said of the work's orange, yellow and brown fall shades.
He cited the late Cy Twombly's scribbles as a "huge" influence on this work.
"He paved the way for me to have the freedom and the confidence to go at it," Clarke said.
The 2018 "Branches" pieces are more recognizably photographic. In one, blurred boughs stretch from right to left. In the other, they reach from left to right. Both evoke the white expanses of the "Alina" across the room.
"This is the style I'm really working in now, which is using long exposures, camera movement, to create very whimsical, almost translucent [forms] as though they're covered with a veil, images that I then print and then work with pastel and pencil," he said.
Those who prefer works bathed in color will enjoy "Wind in a Winter Field" and "Winter Dusk." The former was a long exposure shot of a clearing in Sheffield.
"It was the first snow of the year. As a photographer, whenever everything changes, it's really exciting. As soon as the colors pop in the fall, and they hadn't been, it's exciting. As soon as the first snow covers everything, it's exciting. As soon as everything starts to bloom, it's exciting," he said.
"Winter Dusk" was taken near Hillsdale, N.Y. The snow topping a rolling hill acquires a blue hue and meets a dark forest.
"We were driving pretty quickly, so everything just got blurred and pulled into these groups of color," Clarke said.
The photographer often shoots with an iPhone; on Jan. 28, he will lead an "Intro to iPhone Photography" workshop at the gallery, where he handles printing and framing. His photographs are almost exclusively shot in Berkshire County.
"Where meadow meets woods is a big inspiration," he said.
Along with the Housatonic home he shares with his partner, Liz Hogan, and their two children, Orrin and Maris, Clarke maintains a Stockbridge studio. He has been in group shows at Sohn and exhibited work at Geoffrey Young Gallery in Great Barrington, among other locales. A Central Massachusetts native, Clarke has found some kindred spirits since moving to the county. He has been impressed with Berkshire artists' willingness to work in different mediums instead of focusing on just one.
"Most people aren't that way," he said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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