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Interview: Charlie Clough

Charlie Clough has been quietly working behind the scenes for a few years. In the 1990’s his work took a deliberate turn away from the Postmodern discourse that was cementing itself into art institutions everywhere. In a 1991 Tema Celeste panel discussion on abstract painting that included Leonard Bullock, Richard Hennessey, Cora Cohen, Ron Gorchov & John Zinsser, among others, Charlie stated: “I want my work to have that kind of unity that could point to everything. Of course, that’s an abstraction that can never be. By having a very fragmentary sort of appearance but one that is unified by various things – the arabesque for example – I think that a sense of an all, of everything can be given.”

Charlie was ahead of his time. The concept of unity, or an abstract painting that would try to included everything, was not what Postmodernism was about. Postmodernism was busy breaking things into components, tearing ideas into fragments and cutting and pasting varied ideas and images together like Frankenstein in his laboratory. Charlie’s idea of unity was at odds with the theoretics of the age of Art World Corporatism. He worked to find a way through the conundrum of the failure of Abstract Expression revitalizing a painterly visual imperative. And as such, he pushed his painting into a grand Baroque style, in the same way that Rubens took Mannerism and pushed the academic boundaries of space and form creating a whole new visual “Working Space” for painters. Charlie’s work also connects to the French Romantics lead by Delacroix and the Venetian painters such as Tintoretto – who found not only a contemporary space and energy for a tired style, but also reinvigorated the visual theoretics of that style through new color and plastic form.

Charlie, let me congratulate you on your upcoming show in the GEISAI section of the PULSE Art Fair in Miami. I hope you get the chance to enjoy the experience and maybe sell a few of your beautiful works! But what I really wanted to do was ask you a few questions about abstraction and painting at this particular juncture.

Mark Stone: I know you moved yourself out of the NY area a couple of years ago to find a different approach to your work. When we put together the ABEXBox group show you had been rethinking and reexamining you’re painting practices. In the past you relied on using homemade tools to paint, and now you were reaching back to more ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’ methods to create our work. What prompted the need to change your practices and how did that change your relationship to the works you were making?

Charlie Clough: My career had a fairly successful twenty-year arc until my last New York dealer shut down in 1998. It was clear to me that I faced “diminished circumstances” and while we have hung on to our NY apartment, it would be better to own a studio out of town than to continue to rent in town. To the extent that I fished for new representation, it seemed obvious that I would have a lot of time out of the public eye to re-examine and re-determine every element of my technique. I am just completing production of “Pepfog Clufff”, a book that details the 36-years of my career to this point. Pepfog refers to “the photographic epic of a painter as a film or a ghost”, which I determined in 1976 as my lifetime project. I think this book shows that in a general way my work progresses from more eccentric to more conventional–that I used the eccentricity to distinguish the work and as I gained whatever notoriety, such as I could, I was then able to engage or confront increasingly, the conventions of the form. So, in a way what I’m doing is more generic insofar as it extends, what I take, as the center of painting–a place between de Kooning and Hofmann, and competes with Marden, abstract Richter and maybe Cecily Brown. I guess that “informed consensus”, that entity which is the closest we have to objectivity in the art world, will be my judge.

MS: There was a definite lyricism to those works and it continues in the present ones. Like most great American painters you’ve maintained a connection to land and to landscape. You’re photowork is definitive about that connection. Are you finding the need to reestablish that connection in your newer paintings? Are you finding the move to a more rural setting provided you with a chance to reexamine historical precedent such as the American painters of the 40s and 50s, such as Pollock and DeKooning, or further back to the 19th Century painters, such as Homer or the Hudson River School?

Charlie Clough Pepfog 3CC: Besides art and sex, I’m interested in geology, psychoanalysis and food preparation, which all concern interior/exterior dialectics, the patterns of which I find fascinating. Landscape, of course, depends on geology, and yes, I enjoy most landscape painting. There is little in the tradition of painting that I don’t appreciate. I love the Hudson River painters, especially because their subjects are readily at hand for comparison and delectation. Burchfield, Dove, O’Keeffe and so many other artists of the mid-20th century make me really happy. While our garden is a delight, especially the boulders heaved up by the frost and the bows blown down in the storm, I never feel excluded from nature when I’m in the city.

MS: I see an allover approach to composition and this seems to be a new composition technique in your work. I keep connecting it to Pollock. Rather than a drip technique, you are using the brush stroke to define the movement. The color is ravishing as always, but you are using color in a different way. Rather than define space as you did in the past – the color now seems to define form. How has your vision changed? What is the importance of the painting arabesque as Matisse used to say?

CC: I’m trying to play all-over against “good” composition. The most significant technical modification in how I work now is painting multiple layers with grinding and polishing steps between painting sessions. I photograph the stages and details from each state to “remember” elements that are lost through the process. This seems to me to parallel the aging process, to put it briefly, from youthful “beauty” to elderly “character”. As in palimpsests, a sense of “seeing into” the panel co-exists with the sheerest of surfaces. Color-shape is a function of blotting, gesture and intuition and the arabesque pleases me whenever it occurs.

MS: You are very much involved in documenting the process of the works. The conceptual process becomes an adjunct to the action painting and you allow the viewer into the studio. It is almost like a reality television program, where we see episodes of the day to day work – a big brother in the studio. How does this play into the nature of your work process? Do you find that by photographing the paintings you wind up painting for the lens? How important is the lens documentation to finding the painterly inspiration in the work?

Charlie Clough Pepfog 4CC: The point of Pepfog is that I conceptualize my oeuvre as each image I have made–drawing, painting, photograph and sculpture–sequenced as a frame in one movie. In 1976, I mentioned ghost to refer to both something to replace my absence and to some technology of the future–which is what digital media has come to fulfill. The obsessive photography of my “new” technique reveals the compression and history of each painting. The lens serves my eye by framing all the “good” or compelling “moments” of the painting. I like to make many images, for example from 2001-2004 I made a few thousand watercolors, now I can deal with my aberration by arresting large quantities of images from a single painting, which I think turns the single work into something greater.

MS: Over the summer we saw a number of market driven shows bringing new abstract painting out for the public. The astonishing thing to me was that many of the works were still addressing the same postmodern issues that have been plaguing abstraction since the early 90s. You were featured amongst that crowd of “New Abstractionists” during that time, but clearly your work was not addressing the same issues of technique and context. Your work always seemed to be developing ABEX painting into a new Baroque art form. This stood out against the other artists who were delving into post structural thematics – isolation of technique or juxtaposition of imagery – the displacemnet of narative. Has Postmodernism affected your practices and ideas about painting? Does the proliferation of Postmodernist theoretics in computer programming and lens culture play a role in your creative process? How important is a narrative context to the formulation of your work?

Charlie Clough Pepfog 5CC: I have these ideas: “itness” and “ofity”–itness as self-reflexive identicality, the reified concentration of identity and character; ofity as remediation, the shuffling of media, hyper-consciousness, as in the simultaneous character states of: itself, representation, illustration, metaphor, symbol, suggestion and/or resemblance. Since the 1980s I have thought that Postmodernism should mean something that is counter to Modernism. Modernist reflexivity is something I subscribe to and so it is that for many years I have thought of my practice as Ultramodernist. Painterly painting as I understand it from Titian, Rubens, Delacroix, Turner, and so on, including the Baroque, Rococo, through Abex, is what matters to me in painting. As Delacroix wrote in his Journal: “What moves the genius, or rather, what inspires the work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” And Hegel lectured: “With painting we enter the sphere of the romantic. For, while in painting it is still external shape that must manifest the inner life of the spirit, what is manifested is indeed the particular subjectivity of mind returning into itself out of its corporeal existence.” The medium in painting, as we saw, ceased to be heavy matter treated as such; it became matter reduced to a coating of color which offers us only a pure appearance of material objectivity. When painting’s mastery of color is complete, objectivity vanishes into thin air, so to speak. “…it is color alone that brings to view the more ideal content that painting is capable of expressing.” “…it is the art of coloring that makes the painter a painter.” Digital opportunities wonderfully enhance our ability to create and communicate. The narrative functions in my work as the “epic”–a chain of images that represent the “events”–if not battle scenes– that mark my existence as a painter.

MS: Charlie as we move through this first decade in the 21st Century the art world has become quite a different place than it was even a few years ago. What are your thoughts about its structures and influences on art and art practices? How do you see the big picture? How does this affect what you’re doing? What are your thoughts about the future of abstract painting?

CC: My wife just told me that Oprah is giving away a refrigerator with a TV in it to every one of her guests on today’s show and I really don’t understand why she doesn’t give all of them a pickled shark, a nice ceramic statue of Michael Jackson and a nice picture of shit by Gilbert and George. We live in a fascinating world and I’m really pleased that I don’t have to stand in a long line to see the stuff I love!

For more information about Charlie Clough please go here.

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