Brian Clarke recently had a major exhibition of his contemporary glass works and sketch books at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich (June to October 2018) and the raw and exquisite power of his work was on spectacular display. His place as one of the most important artisits working in glass since the 1970s is clearly shown in the sheer range of styles and exploitation of new techniques made possible only by recent technology.
There are many multicoloured hinged panels set within the gallery space, acting as a celebration of 40 years of the Sainsbury Centre, and an acknowledgement of Brian Clarke’s collaboration with Norman Foster on several architectural projects over the past decades. Using a laminated glass with stencil cut-outs to exploit the power of glass to control and transmit light from outside to a human space inside, the full height screens act as baffles to the outside world, where colours change and images transform as you walk past.
Stained glass is an ancient craft form and references to it being used in England date back to the 7th century. By the 12th century it had become a sophisticated visual language and art whose basic techniques have hardly changed over the centuries: pieces of coloured glass are held together in a framework of lead cames. Early stained glass was made by melting sand, potash and lime together in clay pots; it was coloured by mixing in metallic oxides (copper for green, cobalt for blue, gold for red) and the range of colours increased over time.
As a boy Clarke had seen a stained glass window beinng installed in a church in Lancashire and that sparked his interest in the medium, leading to his making use of glass from the early 70s. Over the past two decades he has been creating complete architectural spaces – total works of art that integrate painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, metalwork and mosaic. This exhibition shows how central glass is to Clarke’s overal vision.
These pages from Clarke’s sketch books offer an insight into his references from nature combined with a geometric sense of dramatic design.
Clarke’s sensitivity to the luminous quality of glass is visible in all these coloured sketches, even in the line drawings there is a sense of figure and ground merging into a complete whole – not sure about the pop art collage though!
The geometric designs seem to hover in the twilight between figure and ground, expertly balancing colours and shape against the transmitted light and using the surface texture of the glass to sculpt this light.
The second section of the exhibition features leaded drawings by Clarke – the complete opposite of the colourful panels which have made full use of light and colour, getting rid of traditional leaded lines in the designs.
Here he uses the lead line alone to create a flowing or jagged drwn line which expresses his thoughts and stories in a minimal and mostly monochrome way. He has extracted line from colour and brought the heaviness and gravitas of traditional stained glass into a new arena.
These drawings with lead against a lead coloured metallic background are virtuoso, highly skilled transformations of what we normally expect from lead cames in a window panel. Sometimes he gives us colour, as in the Orchid collection, sometimes we are left without colour and must summon up our shared repository of cultural references to other art forms we have seen, both glass and painted works.
This is Clarke the painter merging with the glass maker, here the lead absorbs light in the manner of paint, sometimes reflecting it back as colour or as non-colour, depending on the intention of the artist. Glass transmits light up to a point of opacity, then it too only reflects it back to the eye – as in these Orchids against a black ground.
Clarke is working in the magical world between transparency and opacity, light and dark, 2-D and 3-D – a world which he has helped invent by his constantly boundary-pushing art. I think this is where his unique artistic vision lies – connecting the worlds of light and darkness.
Brian Clarke is an artist of vision and compassion, whose love of the world and its creatures comes through every work on display. These are not merely clever displays of technical or artisitic brilliance, they are examples of careful planning and discovery of how to transcend humble materials like glass and lead to create moving displays of uplifting power which become an extension of nature. This is work you can trust to be taking you somewhere new and majestic, and it encourages you to be more amazed and delighted every minute you stand in front of it.