2019 – 2020
Vespers is a series of works on paper by Brian Clarke. Principally paintings in watercolour on Velin Arches, the 559 works also employ homemade cochineal dye, acrylic, cyanotype ink, and mixed media collage of surgical facemasks, newsprint, and painted cut-outs. Ranging in size from a set of twenty-five miniatures to three monumental triptychs, they were created between May 2019 in Seville and the end of the first period of Covid-19 lockdown in London in mid-2020. Vespers are a body of experiments in the nature of paint and liquid colour: abstract works which encapsulate what art historian Martin Harrison has described as Clarke's "devotion to flowers as events – literally and metaphorically". Gathered together, art critic Robert Storr writes in the introduction to the catalogue, Vespers, they make “an explosive bouquet of natural beauty at its most ephemeral, given that all truly natural things are inherently ephemeral and that beauty assumes its greatest pitch and poignancy when it has been wounded” – the series’ almost-daily investigation, continued through work at home in the 2020–21 pandemic capturing an intimate portrait of the times. Some of the series contain collaged elements taken from quick studies, others from resolved paintings which, worked over finely for days, were finally cut up to yield a single perfect form for reuse.
“On the surface of it, they’re paintings of poppies, but they’re a bit more urgent than poppies are generally — aggressive, some of them. I wouldn’t want to spend the night with some, but others I’ve fallen in love with. They are devotions, a repeated action of putting down the best of yourself to share – as near as a post-Darwinian realist can get to saying a prayer.” – Brian, 2020
"The graphic idiom to which Brian Clarke makes recourse in these new drawings is consistent with that of his Night Orchids: what the two bodies of work have in common aside from their floral subject matter is an unpredictable, and frequently surprising liquidity. First and foremost, that liquidity affords the artist an opportunity to display his deft command of gestural brushwork, much as Chinese masters of scroll painting did when given a similar pictorial premise. And like them Clarke is able to eke out subtle suggestions of formal flux and volume from the various transparencies and opacities of a single spontaneous stroke such that a broad poppy petal conjured by just one touch of the brush seems to curve when differently diluted amounts of red pigment settle on the blank sheet of absorbent paper creating exquisitely modulated shadows where the petal warps in or out against the flatness of the sheet." – Robert Storr in the essay Scarlet Sprays for the Winter of our Discontent, from the catalogue of the series.