tony clark: flowerpieces

Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
20 February – 15 March 2003

Flowerpieces is Tony Clark's tenth solo exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9, and one in which familiar themes in Clark's work have interesting contemporary resonances. The aesthetics of Clark's paintings have become progressively richer and, to some tastes, more appealing over the last ten years. His works have also tended to have a socio-political critical dimension to them. With the Flowerpieces series, this may well still be the case, but this work's possible meanings have become more problematic than those of his work ten years ago.

These paintings are certainly aesthetically appealing. Each painting is a vignette of flowers, sometimes with the addition of a single bird. Clark's palette is colourful, but still manages a similar moody darkness to his more abstract Lontano series from 2000. Given this, and his floral subject matter, there are echoes of the flower paintings of Tim Maguire in these works—in particular Flowerpiece with Daisy (2003, acrylic on canvas, 61.0cm x 122.0cm). However, Clark's flowers are much more understated. In Flowerpieces his brushwork is loose and lucid, sometimes echoing elements of Chinese calligraphy. Given the freeness of his lines, the muted colours of these paintings might well be all that saves them from a Ken Done-like Matisse pastiche. At an aesthetic level, they certainly fulfil the commercial imperative.

But with Clark's oeuvre, aesthetics have often been an avenue through which broader issues of culture and difference have percolated. In the early to mid-1990s, Clark's series of blue and white Landscape Reliefs and Jasperware Paintings were stylistic appropriations of blue porcelain chinoiserie. This Asian decorative tradition was made popular in European bourgeois parlours by manufacturers such as Wedgwood and Doulton from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s. Not coincidentally this period paralleled European imperial expansion in Asia, and chinoiserie was effectively a cultural appropriation, with the more negative connotations of the word. Like the paintings of Jean-Lean Gerome or Else Lasker-Schüler, these pretty pictures of benign European orientalism belie the uglier realities of imperialism and cultural exploitation. Furthermore, chinoiserie is 'orientalist' in Edward Said's sense of the term—a Western conception of the East that tells us more about the West than of the East it seeks to represent. Clark's further appropriation of this delicately twee tradition into the critical forum of contemporary art discourse opened it up for interrogation.

The lineage of these latest Flowerpiece works is less easily identified. Amanda Rowell's accompanying essay places Clark's Flowerpieces more squarely in a European Christian tradition, describing them as 'Caravaggesque' on the basis of their dark tonality. Nevertheless, their dark tonality is not through any representations of chiaroscuro. These works have the flatness of tone and perspective characteristic of non-European forms. Clark's palette of dark desaturated turquoise and rusted yellow tones, along with his iconography, bear far greater resonance with seventeenth century Persian painting. Parrot-portrait with Flowers (2003, acrylic on canvas, 61.0 x 46.5cm) and Bird-portrait with Flowers (2003, acrylic on canvas, 41.0 x 30.5cm) have a probably accidental, but not insignificant, similarity to the images of the Persian Safavid era manuscript Language of the Birds at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Given Clark's past references to orientalism, this reading would not seem too far off the mark.

However, it is certainly harder to identify in Clark's Flowerpieces the kind of social and cultural critique that seems to accompany his earlier chinoiserie works. There are two main probable reasons for this, which also overlap and make for a more difficult critical terrain in which to address issues of cultural difference between East and West. Firstly, the character of contemporary art discourse has changed considerably since the early 1990s. Clark's Landscape Reliefs and Jasperware Paintings belong to the tail-end of a tendency in contemporary art towards addressing critical discourses, which reached its apex in the 1980s. That was before 'playing dumb, shouting "ARSE" and taking your knickers down' became 'an attractive move in the face of the institutionalisation of critical theory in art in the '80s', as John Roberts succinctly puts it.

And secondly, that was the pre-September 11 world. Quite aside from the ways in which our world has supposedly 'changed', like having our shoes x-rayed before boarding a plane, at a global level the cultural relationships between East and West are currently undergoing the uncertainty of transition. lt is not that the cultural relationships underlying Said's theorizing of orientalism have become disarrayed. If anything, the West's belief in orientalism's central cliché, of the exotic yet dangerous East, has become even more entrenched. But until the present dust has settled, artistic critiques surrounding issues of cultural difference between East and West are problematic partly because of the current uncertainty about the ways that the relationship may change and partly for reasons of sensitivity.

So, the broader cultural contexts that provided the critical frameworks for Clark's work in the past have receded and, despite possible alternative readings, Rowell (as the Gallery's sanctioned voice for Clark) places his Flowerpieces safely in a European Christian tradition. As the broader cultural contexts are downplayed and their formal seductiveness is emphasised, the trajectory of Clark's work is reoriented away from critique and toward more insular concerns with aesthetics. This in itself is perhaps understandable at this point in time, and of immediate consequence. However, in the longer term this potentially opens up Clark's past oeuvre to revisions that dilute its previous cultural critique. Maybe I wrongly invest too much in readings of social, cultural and political critique in Clark's work, but as aesthetically appealing as I find them I would like to think that the paintings in Flowerpieces are more than pretty pictures for bourgeois parlours.

Tony Clark, Flowerpiece with Spider Lilies, 2003. Acrylic on canvas, 91.5 x 91.5cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

notes: 

1. Roberts, John, 'Mad For lt! Philistinism, the Everyday and the New British Art', Third Text 35, Summer 1996, p. 29.