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Nancy Tousley

John Clark, 1943 - 1989

Canadian Art, Volume 6 #4, December 1989.
[ 970 words ]


The painter John Clark died of cancer on September 20, 1989, in Lethbridge, Alberta, at the age of 46. His program as an artist, marked by intelligence, learning and a profound generosity of spirit, was large in its search for meaning. This he found when the physical materials of his craft met the transforming energy of his thinking / feeling painter's hand. The work that now stands for his full, if unfinished, career encompasses more than 20 years' devotion to painting. It also includes every viewer he continues to touch through his medium, the innumerable students he taught in both England and Canada, and a small body of lucid, clear-sighted critical writing on modern and contemporary art.

Linked to the English tradition, to Cézanne, to Hopper and Avery and Hartley and Guston (painters with whom he found a kinship), Clark searched for a means to marry matter and spirit in images that embodied the humanizing qualities he missed in so much recent painting. Of Avery, he wrote: 'The painter reminds us that the action of the artist on the painting's surface can be an organic process similar to the action of naturalforces.' The same is true of Clark. In the same piece, he held to 'that older notion of style' as 'personal inventiveness.' He sought 'that much more delicate and ambitious goal of figurative painting...transformation — that necessary metamorphosis of subject-matter that takes place on the specially sensitized space of the painted surface.' He once said in an interview with painter Ron Shuebrook, 'I want my paintings to be both overtly figurative and overtly abstract if such a thing is possible — not synthesized into an ambiguity.' To that end, he turned drawing into painting and painting into drawing, bringing that 'language through which all painting is expressed' to the surface so that a viewer, guided by his solid yet transcendent touch, might witness the process that drew an object in the world into another order of being.

A true trans-Atlantic man, well schooled in European art history, Clark, in his painting The Man With the Hat of Fire (1981), could savor the wry poignancy of Van Gogh by portraying a figure in a candle-trimmed hat painting a Halifax landscape that includes the Holiday Inn. Born in Yorkshire in 1943, Clark moved back and forth between England and North America several times: to take his M.F.A. as a Fulbright scholar at Indiana University (1968); to lecture at his alma mater, the Hull College of Art in England, where he had lectured from 1968 to 1973 and (following a lecturing stint at Newcastle Polytechnic) 1974 to1978; to teach at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (1978-83); to become head of the painting department at Hull in 1983. He returned to Canada in 1986 to teach at the University of Lethbridge. North America gave Clark some distance on European traditions and he allied them with new affinities. He was bent upon conserving painting's wholeness and well-being by drawing directly from life, nature and art of the past and reshaping the mixture. 'Transformational painting has more in common with the novel and with poetry,' he wrote. 'Being structured and multi-layered, it acknowledges the world as a reality, not a fantasy, and the artist as an individual with the responsibility and ability to act in its interpretation.'


Canadian Art, Volume 6 #4, December 1989.


Text: © Nancy Tousley. All rights reserved.

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