Brian Clarke can fit into many descriptions of an artist, but prefers to limit himself to just three: architectural artist, stained glass artist, and painter. His glass work engages ancient materials with the most modern of techniques, and can be found installed all over the world in a variety of secular and non secular spaces: from the Pyramid of Peace in Kazakhstan to the Victoria Quarter in Leeds. The paintings in one of his most recent exhibitions, ‘Night Orchids’, explore the formal concerns that glass raises; colour, light, weight, whilst his image-making consists of a search for ambiguous and resonant forms. The paintings question how we see and interpret those forms, what we understand of symbols and how we employ metaphor, as an encounter with every aspect of the world. We met up with the iconic artist and discussed how the Night Orchids came about, his search for the ‘heraldic presence’ of imagery, the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk as creating an ‘entire environment’ and the significance of the role of the artist and the craftsman.
“…it’s a feeling that has not been available in the past. A new feeling for glass, I’m really excited by it.”
Brian Clarke’s Night Orchids
How did you first come across night orchids and what drove you to paint them?
There’s a little bit of a misunderstanding about night orchids, because people seem to think that I’ve been painting a particular variety of orchids that blossoms at night, which I’m not. I call them night orchids because I do them at night, when I get home from the studio. Also it tends to be on black paper over the last few years. So night orchids, recently, refers to time of day rather than type of species.
Ah I see, I was making all sorts of connections with the transitory blossoming of the orchid, as something you wanted to capture.
All the things that hide behind that stuff are invariably revealed in the form of the times. They’re always in there. But at the time of doing things, I really am concentrating so fully on the creation of the image, that any backstory or influence or focus in terms of metaphor is lost in the process.
You’ve continually painted the same motifs and themes, like the skull, the spitfire, the fleur-de-lis. I was wondering if they came from a specific personal memory?
I’m always looking for images and things that seem to have an ambiguous quality or no ambiguity at all! Things that have a heraldic presence. A form, a shape, like a spitfire or a fleur-de-lis, or a cotton mill, or a skull, things that resonate in some way. I see them as vehicles to experiment with. They’re like route maps. The skull is not much different to me than the fleur-de-lis or the orchid or the primrose. They have an iconographic metaphorical authority, like all recognisable things do. But they’re also a vehicle for time, for allowing my line to find itself and colour to express itself, in ways other than simply expressing mass or movement.
In the BBC Four documentary about your life, it mentions you have an early influence of spiritualism, does this still resonate with the work you make now?
I’m interested in spirituality, I’m interested in metaphor and symbols, and I’m interested in the idea that appearance is not reality. That there are many things we don’t understand, but in the pursuit of understanding them, we discover all kinds of things we weren’t expecting. In that sense I’m still a bit of a spiritualist, I suppose. But I do not attend seances.
“Whether it’s nervous, anxious feelings, or calm, Arcadian feelings – your line has to carry that.”
I wanted to focus a bit more about the line in your work. It’s said to be similar to the line you use in lead. Do you see this comparison as relevant to the orchid pieces?
You have to find ways of making the lead not just structural, but to have its own calligraphy that can carry the feeling you have with it. Whether it’s nervous, anxious feelings, or calm, Arcadian feelings – your line has to carry that. Because I’ve been trying to find my line in lead for so long, it’s had a direct impact on the way I draw. I draw all the time, so I have no doubt in saying that the way I draw has influenced the way I use lead in stained glass, [and vice versa]. Line in the stained glass, in the paintings and in the drawings: it’s all the same to me, but they certainly wouldn’t exist without each other.
Could you give some more background about the stained glass piece in the exhibition?
That’s the first of a new body of work that I’m making. They are for me the most exciting, it’s the beginning of what I hope will be the most productive and exciting body of work I’ve produced. It’s using stained glass in a different way, it’s not bounded by architecture, but it has a sort of architectural nature, because it’s a self standing screen that takes up its own space. It requires a certain response to the work, which complements the compositional structure, I like that architectonic thing about it.
Each screen has a different subject matter, a different iconography, but it is all expressed in a way that tries to advance the expressive potential of the medium. By using no lead to make the screens (yet I may at some point, but these are laminate sheets of glass), it’s contemporary technology engaging the historical medium. I’m in a great hurry to make as many of these screens and explore as many possibilities as I can. It’s almost like watching a movie that you’re really enthralled by, and you can’t possibly go out to make a coffee, because you don’t want to miss anything. I’m really in the middle of that movie at the moment, and I don’t want to do much else but push forward.
Do you think the curation, of all the night orchids on mass, changes how you might have envisioned experiencing them as art works individually? Together they form a huge grid, and I know the grid and the organic form have a dialogue in your work. Were you thinking about this when you put the exhibition together?
It wasn’t something that I thought about when I was doing them. Although, occasionally, you might have six or seven on the floor together, so you could see that the sum of their parts is something other than when they are individual. That’s always exciting, but I asked it to be hung that way at the Pace gallery, because I wanted them to have an architectural presence. Otherwise they would get lost, and there would be a danger of them being pretty flower drawings. I suppose they might be on one level, but it’s certainly not the way I saw them.
“I like to see my art go up walls, across ceilings, down staircases, across floors, I like it in frames, I like to see it as tapestries, mosaic-stained glass, tiles, ceramics. I don’t care what the medium is. I like to combine them to create an entire environment.”
Night Orchids at Pace Gallery
Which artists have inspired you as a painter, as opposed to a stain glass artist?
Cy Twombly, Johannes Schreiter, who is a German artist, not very well-known. The pre-Raphaelites had a considerable impact on me, as did Mondrian and Matisse, I could go on!
I came across a word that is used sometimes in relation to your work, Gesamtkunstwerk, could you maybe talk a bit about that?
It’s kind of ‘all-round art’. I like to see my art go up walls, across ceilings, down staircases, across floors, I like it in frames, I like to see it as tapestries, mosaic-stained glass, tiles, ceramics. I don’t care what the medium is. I like to combine them to create an entire environment, so that you can enter into a work of art, rather than just looking at a work of art in an interior. I like to do that through the back door; I don’t much care for installation art that has a transitory life in an art gallery. The kind of installation art I do is architectural, and it’s there for as long as the building is, usually. Now that’s my kind of Gesamtkunstwerk: linking things up in all kinds of spaces, whether they’re historical spaces or new spaces.
I know you’ve had quite a traditional and amazingly broad art education. Do you have anything to say on the difference, if there is one, between an artist and a craftsman?
I think the two roles often overlap, but not always. There are elements of art in craft and elements of craft in art. Working with craftsmen is a great privilege and a really important part of my artistic life. I think making things with our hands is a very important part of our human nature, and is a very significant way of creating things that way express the human condition. Whether the tools you use are chisels or pencils, or probably digital tools, I believe in the notion that to make something (and make it well) is a singular opportunity and a singular skill that we humans have. If we lose it, we lose a great means of artistic expression.
I would be very proud if people thought me to be a craftsman, but I am an artist, and I work with craftsmen to achieve a goal that neither of us could achieve without the other. It’s that symbiotic relationship we have really, artist and craftsman, that has always produced the greatest art.
Words Maia Gaffney-Hyde