Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Simon Turner - What I See in Prunella Clough's Paintings (I)

"Works of art await use" - John Berger

Irregular swathes of turqouise set amid a flat field of white, jagged edges rimming the sea-coloured patches: peeling paint's gaping gnashers, or foam-jets roaring up the massive sides of cruising tankers. The whole effect is startlingly physical, the flat surface pushing at the bounds of two dimensional space, as if the embedded textures were somehow alive, straining to push through from behind the suface of the image and out into the 'real' world.

What I just wrote is a description of a particular wall in a partciular street in a particular town of the English Midlands, but could just as easily have served as an attempt to render into words one of Prunella Clough's canvases. Patrick Heron has already noted Clough's ability, in her art, to change the way we see, her painting's capacity to not only reflect, in an astonishing and idiosyncratic manner, the urban world around us, but also to challenge us to see that world in an entirely new capacity - as a series of textures and patterns waiting to be found and transformed into landscapes.

I first discovered Clough's work - in the form of her painting 'Vegetation' (1999) - during one of my regular visits to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. My method during these visits was usually one of aimless wandering - I rarely went there with an exhibition or a particular artwork in mind, though I always made a detour to see a priapic Picasso sculpture, a primitive Christ in varnished wood - hoping something would catch my eye each time. Sometimes it did, sometimes there was nothing, no shock of the new. In the case of 'Vegetation', I was immediately taken with its strangeness, the fact that it was something other than the (admittedly beautiful) Pre-Raphaelite superabundance for which Brum's art gallery is demi-famous to those in the know. No alabaster lunatics floating down river here, just an axpressive abstract arrangement of - well, pebbles, aren't they? Or is it a landscape seen from above, from a great height? One of my first thoughts - one of the images the painting deliberately suggests, I would now argue - was of the primitive cave paintings at Lascaux, buffalo etched in 'crude' but infinitely vivid terms on the sweating rock; and that chain of association led on next to crop circles and Mayan ground-sculptures and aerial photography. The painting seemed - seems - possessed of an almost limitless capacity for expressiveness. This is its power, the power of Clough's work considered in totality, in fact: the paintings are never wholly abstract, certainly, but neither do they (for the most part at least) go in for definitive signification. We are by no means in the realm of social realism or urban documentary when we are witness to Clough's canvasses, in spite of early gestures towards these modes. These earlier pieces, even, are characterised by a tension between, on the one hand, a tendency towards abstraction, and, on the other, a refusal to dismiss figuration outright. (Her grand canvas 'Lowestoft Harbour' (1951) is arguably the most achieved of these earlier works.) Later, the human body is gradually discarded as a subject, perhaps precisely because of its corporeality, its status as a grounded singular signifier, rather than a floating, potentially infinite suggestion of an image, or network of images. The body always means too much: it both reaches out to a world beyond the borders of the canvas, and back through previous representations of the human figure in art. It denies the polysemy that Clough's canvases are so clearly striving towards.

But Clough's later paintings are by no means dry exercises in academic abstraction, and viewing them can often be a highly sensual experience, the artist clearly taking delight in her compositional method, the interplay of colours, their feel, their energy. 'Waste-land' (1979), for example, has the ryhtmic vibrancy and fludity of a jazz quartet, jagged black lines like trumpet blasts blocked out over the tinselly rhythms of gravel, and the sinewy guitar lines of coiled rope. This abstract swings, and knows it. Yet it's real too, and not just jazzy interplay. I've noted the gravel, but note, too, the Allen key to the bottom right of the composition, and the bursts of colour scattered throughout the painting's largely monochrome surface like scraps of dayglo packaging. This both is and is not a real wasteland, realism and abstraction meeting and colliding, leaving charred metal and pellets of stone in the aftermath.

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