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 paint, 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 laid on canvas, 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 2021 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 then cut up to yield a single form for reuse; other works return to the grid that has been a signature component of Clarke's work since the early 80s, with paper cut-outs collaged onto a rectilinear matrix of two layered, acrylic-painted sheets of Velin. Currently on display in full at Phillips Berkeley Square in London in the exhibition 'Vespers', from 5 August to 10 September 2021.
“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-that-are-really-paintings 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.
"I tried to see if I could capture not so much how a poppy looks, but that feeling that they have. Sometimes it’s one of very delicately balancing their beauty on the top of those tender, tender stems — the way the stems drip with great speed out of the flower down to the ground, and you don’t see how one could hold them up until you happen to touch a poppy, and it’s like luminous gossamer. No textile company could approach it; we can’t come within a mile of creating such a powerfully, intensely coloured diaphanous membrane as that. It feels like life itself. And it lasts for no time. Other times they’re like talking things, communicating things. If there are two or three of them together, because of the way they move, they have little gatherings — a bit like the gatherings you used to see of men in Italy and Portugal, and can see still a bit in the south of Spain, where you’ll just get a bunch of blokes on the street, usually old blokes my age, just hanging out with their caps on and talking. And poppies are like that, except beautiful. They have a pre-Raphaelite, loquacious beauty about them; somehow simultaneously celebratory and melancholic, a melancholia separate from our association with the Somme and remembrance.
When I’m making these works, new worlds, constellations, relationships, start occurring between them, and I get carried away. I feel like a bit of a marionettist, choreographing some story across the sheet. Making them is meditative and intense, an intensity that brings a sort of peace, a calm where your brain isn’t racing, it’s just surfing along with everything that’s going on around. When I’ve been painting these and I get into that frame of mind, particularly if I can just carry on and on and on, night after night after night after night, they become like meditations — they feel, when I do them, like little prayers, and these tableaux play out." – Brian