Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Birthday Party Paintings by Christine Clark reviewed by Debora Alanna

‘The Birthday Party Paintings’
3-19 October 2014


Christine Clark’s latest work is a series of 12 x 12’ oil paintings collectively titled ‘The Birthday Party Paintings’.  These paintings are expectantly familiar to all that have celebrated a birthday.  They are attentive and considerate to their origins, the photographed family album. Clark has painted more, exposed more than any faithful family photo can reveal.  She has a facility to paint what is not easily described in words or can be ascertained within a casually photographed image. She can paint tenderness, transitions, perplexity, and raw tests of relations, the mystification that often encompass childhood feelings.  Her paintings celebrate the prosaic as important means to substantiate childhood experiences that are implicit, personal and merged into the blocks of time softened by memory.  Clark brings out eclipsed revelations during birthday parties chronicled within 17 square 70s genre paintings. 

‘Happy Birthday to you.’ [1]

Artemis seems to be responsible for the round shape of honey cakes alit with candles to evoke her being goddess of the moon, wishes granted when blown [2] although some think the Western traditions follow the German Kinderfest (but where did that come from?). The first known recording of birthdays is on the Rosetta stone where documentation exists of the celebration of  Ptolemy V Epiphanes’ (reigned 204–181 BC) birthday (and coronation) in exchange for concessions to priests [3] and his subjects – gifts to temples, damming the Nile for farmers. [4]
Through time, by the 18th century aristocracy was able to afford cake, but the middle classes eventually adopted the tradition of celebrating birthdays. It seems that so long as there have been calendars, birthdays have been celebrated to commemorate birthdays. Arturo Ricci (Italian), Fredrick Daniel Hardy (English), Walter Osborne (Irish) and Ludwig Knaus (German) painted versions of birthday parties at the turn of the last century – when celebrating a birthday with a party seemed to become an international phenomenon in this cake and candles tradition. Birthdays became feasts to celebrate children royally. 

The birthday party has been around, as a cultural institution for some time. Photography as a means to document celebrations, substantial events and commonplace circumstances seemed to supplant paintings in the 20th century. By mid 20th century North America everybody seemed to celebrate, at least a child’s birthday, with cake and candles, taking snaps to mark the occasion. Clark’s work is a document to her memories of her familial celebrations recorded through family photographs, painted to accentuate and respond, counter the photographed images, marking the occasions with her bringing forward her understanding and feelings that are unique to painting,  visions of time and place through her observations and experiences.

Hung as the gallery’s horizon line, Clark’s work encircles us with circa 1970s birthday party views.  Birthdays past present as square instruments draw us through conclusive evidence of regularity, earnestly considered slices of moments of childhoods lived. Clark’s series are multiples of remembrances once captured on film for posterity. Clark painted the photographed images allowing painterly responses that enables a translation of the photo within painted portraits, the intersection of past with the present. Her horizon of works ensnare frank childhood celebratory events common to many North Americans, the birthday party. She paints familiar interiors, captive familial gatherings, enclosed spaces framing seasons of weather.  She reiterates a marginal shufti of a load bearing blue truck cornered in windows. Cleverly rendered recurring corners of middle income family bungalows are painted in various views. Sometimes, partial or closed curtains of vertical bands giving structure, stabilizing the agitating affect of smudged or masked faces that startle and perturb. Horizontal versions of golden Greco-Roman fabric patterns appear in separate works, rumpled to allow doubt, misgiving, redirecting our view. Foreground fabric bands effect our consideration of figure/figures within painting squares to readdress the importune agitation of who, when and where, an unspecified placement somewhere in time, an undistinguished location.

Ambiguity becomes a secret. Why? What is it we must not know? We as viewers become accomplices in the covert scene because we have seen it, and we cannot tell or explain because we do not have enough information to explicate. Clark involves us as abettors, and leaves us unapologetically perplexed, a participant in the awry portraits because we are a witness to some indefinite cover-up or smeared childhood experience. The masked and smudged paintings are about the assumptions we make, the masquerade of pretence when guess becomes adopted responsibility.

Clark tests angles, viewpoints (hers and ours) through positions of cakes and children’s standpoints within kitchen approaches, dining room table shapes, aperture treatments and windowpane scrutiny. She paints sets of decorated birthday party rooms that allow emotive content to be showcased. Clark expounds, elaborates and accentuates scenarios with period colours and party accoutrements, undoubtedly gleaned from the original photographs. Clark has the facility for heightening the seemingly banal to generate a disposition depiction within individual works beyond ambiance without being coy or obvious. Tilts of lit candles, cake decoration distinction, fabric and pattern deviation, groupings of kids stage-manage, allowing direction and control that may appear casual or incidental. Her arrangements and embellishments angle our perception of the content of the scenes. Clark’s stratagems encourage reflection, unhurried purposeful reflection. ‘The Birthday Party Paintings’ are replete with ideas.

Clark directs us to think about how tradition is coherent. She shows us how regularity is valuable as a means to collective extemporization. Although the birthday party is a time honoured tradition, reliably a good time to be had, there is always a degree of excitement and the possibility of commotion, consternation because children are unpredictable. Well behaved adults will be on the sidelines, like the inactive typewriters Clark paints, quiescent on bureaus, their lives on hold for the occasion. Clark substantiates the timelessness of ritual through her adherence to the birthday party theme. She paints the basis of culturally unequivocal need for and a kind of validation of identity through the birthday party celebration. Clark honours childhood memory. She respects the birthday party as a gift from elders to allow a communal experience. She provides evidence of and expounds on childhood through the wide spectrum between casual and uncomfortable impressions throughout her birthday party experiences. Clark’s ‘The Birthday Party Paintings’ are complex, intricately painted encapsulations of substantial provocation, inviting with unguarded reveals of qualities of innocence. 

‘It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to
Cry if I want to, cry if I want to
You would cry too if it happened to you’

~ ‘It’s My Party’ (1962) by John Gluck (sung by Lesley Gore / produced by Quincy Jones 1963)

Innocence is masked in several of Clarks works. Clark’s painted tears on masks may or may not be real. A child without a mask painted similarly sad to a masked child with tears on her mask shows Clark’s ability to challenge ambiguity, to illustrate the multiplicity of childhood innocence with its pain exposed and the tease of the median between distress and guarded emotional ranges. Pain is distinguished as a justified act of contrition. Sorrow is acceptable.
Clark generates a range of significant of feelings through her painted environments. Her explorations of veracity are exposed through the square shapes of this body of work. She multiplies the range, viewpoints of ideas within her paintings by rendering scenes in slightly differentiated perspectives. Within the square, she is able to formulate quadrilateral spaces to test conformity. There is a sense of openness, directness in this work. Clark is adept at delving into and can uncannily elucidate the diverse breadth of girlhood dispositions through her paintings.  

An older child in long maroon floral dress sits alone in a half back vanity chair that truncates a dark blue swivel seat which seems to be upholstered as if it belonged in a car. Curtains drape like hair just brushed in readiness. The girl seems tentative, pensive. Has she isolated herself or is she abandoned, stranded, deserted by others at the party? That’s how it is with change – one finds oneself alone, because being solitary is necessary for change. The room is muted, spare, frugal.  She seems oblivious to the waiting driver of the pretty sky blue truck, driver straining to see, maybe, a memory of security. No one will see the transformation from girlhood to woman until it is a fact. The girl seems waiting, too - waiting for time to pass, waiting for adulthood. Deep brown ground weights the scene. Yellow and white bungalow paint is brighter, more spruce than the anteroom. 

Clark paints a significant version of vanity, how pride, self worth is required to make change. The make-up chair is separate from the vanity, or dressing table. She painted the segregation of the ideal, societal mirroring allowing the girl comfort, calm, self containment. Waiting is part of the process of the inherent transition from girlhood to adulthood. Although Clark allows the girl to sit in the vanity chair, there is no futility of an idyllic existence present. The smart house and appealing truck in the window view is suggestive of thoughts about model existences, future possibilities as one might have as goals or outlying hopes. The child sits in a primping seat, but is painted straightforwardly candid, sincere, and ingenuous. She is allowed to feel special for the duration of her transit. Clark’s coinciding overlap of the upholstered swivel seat is self-consciousness, prickly to the viewer as if one might feel if they sat with bare legs on the dark mystery of chair’s worsted twill, the unknown place. The absence of an occupant, its proximity to the girl suggests that the car chair might be the next chair she will occupy, that adulthood is close. Transitioning to the sober chair seems a large, ominous transition. There is no impediment – Clark paints room to / for change. 

Several of Clark’s works are painted with a dark shadowy dead-colour used in early Flemish painting process [5]  - an underpainting of murky black paint without further paint treatment, leaving us without chromatic subtlety one might experience if subsequent top layers of paint were employed. Clark paints a demanding picture plane. Her biased, subjective scheme provokes. At first, these vistas seem to be night shade views. However, the blackened space becomes an indication of something of consequence or calamitous occurring in the foreground redirected by the dark. A boy looks at the viewer, as if caught by an inadvertent voyeur. A girl is the conduit for provocation. Clark skilfully paints the presence felt by girls in her work with emotional bluntness. She luminously captures the tenderness of realization, the discomfort, the epiphanies, the meaness girls exude. Her portrayals render unutterable subtlety and disquiet. 

Clark’s family photo collection inspired paintings reiterate square portraits reminiscent of Polaroid or SX70 formats. The washed blackened ground in several works, obliterating any view outside a window or other rooms, framing, bringing forward the interior seen, eliminating the background and minimizing the middle ground (curtains, adjacent walls, incidentals on a table) is also reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich’s black and his other colours of squares. Malevich described precepts of ‘Suprematism', this quote from Part II of his1927 book, The Non-Objective World, published in Munich as Bauhaus Book No. 11:
'Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.' [6]

Malevich painted the Black Square in 1913, the first of his squares to champion primal feeling in art. The square format of Clark’s work is the whets purity of feeling of a Malevich Suprematist square, but skews the purity by tilting her square treatments. Clark’s portrayed feelings are nevertheless primal.

Historic recapitulation, a repeat of the birthday party theme over years of the ritual, the viewer is drawn into a 1970s genre of the familial practice and convention of birthday cake and groups of children, the birthday girl, the party favours, the captured moment of lit candles to commemorate, to ceremonially celebrate the tribute to another year, future promise, the festivity of sweetness and delight. 

 ‘...if you don’t use the awkward reality that is about, you get bland images. (...) we use that we use the daily stuff we have in our hands, the immediate surroundings in order to make a painting with character, rather than from the bland, free floating decorative image.’

~ Frank Auerbach. BBC Front Row radio interview, 4 October 2013.

Awkward realities are the subject of every work in Clark’s series. None are decorative images, although the original photographed events began as fancy conjuring to venerate the girl or boy at the birthday parties, now self and familial portraits of that time.

Short lives of butterflies, or life as a series of moments, the above work flits as masked creatures, a wall of heavy hearkening of the butterfly shaped cake. A technique brought forward by the fuzzy glows in photograph, halation of a light source initially employed by Johannes Vermeer observing light through a camera obscura to paint highlights as ‘disks of confusion’, was considered ‘useless for picture-making, even if one is aware of its existence’, [7] is challenged by Clark’s out-of-focus characters. This allows the confusion of the moment captured photographically to be protracted as painted portraits or emphasising out of place points of attention (pink dot below) - a spot of bother, a point of contention? Nothing Clark paints is arbitrary.

‘Photograph - I don't want your
Photograph - I don't need your
Photograph - all I've got is a photograph

But it's not enough’

—Photograph by Def Leppard, from the 1983 album, Pyromania

Clark’s observations are coloured by her birthday party family photos, but she works beyond the photographed images. Many allow the unmitigated feeling children have to emerge in the portraits, feelings that might be considered dissolute, wild, unrestrained by convention. Her skill allows the indecorous to be present, projected. Although constraints of the morality of birthday parties are respectful in this series, kids will be kids, as Clark’s efforts shrewdly shows. Clark is not afraid of asserting her revelations through observations within the original photographs. We see her painted thoughts resulting in consideration of her observations, her painterly protraction of her views, thriving outcomes of these works.
‘Vision changes while it observes.’ ~ James Ensor

In her 2007 dissertation, ‘Hoe schilder hoe wilder: Dissolute self-portraits in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish Art’, University of Maryland, Ingred Cartwright  wrote about artists in the 17th century painting self portraits possibility, according to their lived behaviour and temperament, or what they would have liked their lives to be projected through ‘dissolute self-portraits’. She explained that they strayed from conventional assumptions of seemliness within the paintings, at least, to bolster their identity through an emerging stereotype - ‘hoe schilder hoe wilder’ [the more of a painter, the wilder he is]. 

‘…all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a 'floating chain' of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others. Polysemy poses a question of meaning and this question always comes through as a dysfunction... Hence in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs; the linguistic message is one of those techniques.’ ~ Roland Barthes [8]

In the 18th century, European artists encountered and began utilizing, emulating the compositional traits, the singularity of images in wide washed pictorial space, ‘pictures of the floating world’, Ukiyo-e, or ukiyo-ye (浮世絵),  Japanese wood cut  prints with a well defined, bold, flat line, [9] monochromatic arrangement of forms in flat spaces. [10]  The 20th century seems to acknowledged a jumble, a juggle of delineated imagery utilizes the singularity of image against monochromatic grounds, ‘pictures of the floating world’ with a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, bits and pieces of a child’s experience. There is a sense of dysfunction and terror, the Cy Twombly-like scribble on a smiling face, cake and vanity chair, the blue truck bit, signs or transit as a transitory state. 

The assemblage of diverse  floating imagery, a reminder of the 1924 silver print self portrait by El Lissitzky titled The Constructor seems to sanction Clark’s collage technique although she assembles photographed images and paints the collage, an opposition  and denial of imagery used allowing an ambiguity of meaning. Fragments drift and hover on a sinister square. Between blots of white and blue, a child’s face is carelessly scribbled out, a determined erasure of identity. Images from other paintings, the fondly painted car and chair, party hat and cake are in upheaval, deranged. Clark’s painted construction is a portrait of a constructor, one who is mindful of signifiers, one who is in the midst of questioning.

Deliberate accident art, ‘Blots’ by Christopher Turner - 1 January 2011 in the Tate Etc. Issue 21 Spring 2011 gives an overview of examples where artists’ deliberate accidents provided an opportunity to think about range of instigators, like Leonardo da Vinci who encouraged stains to ‘search for inspiration’, ‘search for meaning in chaos’. The 18th century painter, Alexander Cozens ‘spilled sublime’ blot paintings became the subject of his book, A New Method of Assisting the Invention of Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1785).  J.M.W. Turner, John Ruskin, J.M. Whistler were all accused of using blots. This technique was eventually picked up by the Dada, Surrealists, and on throughout this century.

Clark utilized the blot in one of her works, where she has painted a girl in the top left corner, or that is all that is left of the painting after the blot is applied. The blot is not the inspiration here, but the statement. The blotting out, the weight of the spoil is dominant. Christopher Turner quoted Hans Arp: ‘Chance art, as expressive of modernity, is therefore uniquely and necessarily modern’.  Clark’s blot may be chance, or it may be intention, or both or neither. This is not important. Modernity is not important.  The blot on the work, has a comforting effect and affect. It entices like the attraction of what one must not do, and has done, veering towards another’s humiliation – the attraction of an accident. Clark’s blot is big in relation to the size of the work. It encompasses almost the whole picture plane. The deliberation of the deliberate accident can have so many readings – a quick cover up, a misfortune, or a spill of gleeful darkness, just for fun? Clark allows the wake of interpreting to be bestowed on the viewer with a wash of glossy reflection. 

'... eyes being seen or not, invoking an image   prevalent in the media of masking the eyes to protect the identity of either an assailant or a victim (...) implies a level of intimacy – but if one is to cover the eyes there is a tension between this intimacy and apparent distance enforced by masking the full identity...'

~ Angela Woodhouse, email interview with Janet McKenzie, 3 March 2010 regarding the MAVEN Commission: Jenny Holzer Collaboration (ARTIST ROOMS, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate Gallery - Woking Dance Festival & The Lightbox Gallery and Museum) [11]

Clark paints a group of children around a birthday party table with black masking strips discomforting to the viewer, the protection from knowing, intimacy, for all the kids but one. One will be forefront, a boy, the boy will be identified. He connects us, involves us in the question, the reaction. A dare. Clark paints a goad, a taunt. Do you have the courage to be bold, to reveal what is unknown, to most, that you, you are present? The writing on the wall fades through time passing, the scourge of waiting for the delayed reaction. 

Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Der Tod in Venedig was the basis of the Italian director, Luchino Visconti’s 1971 movie titled Death in Venice starring Dirk Bogart. He developed a scene in a hotel about 20 or so minutes into the film an overview of guests gather, where a child with adults would likely indicate a birthday celebration. Slowly, only hats populate the view, people become their hats, creating hat silhouettes. 

Clark’s golden party goer outline parallels Visconti’s device. Both develop a contour, melding boundaries between people. The absence of delineation abridges the event as a glowing festivity, eradicates the precision of an explanation. The party becomes a synopsis of a story through the simplified headscape. Clark asserts the evenness of a group encounter as the light of the muted Harvest Gold memory. Clark supplants detail by a 70s yellow summary of her party-goer hats, heads bearing points towards the conveyance - truck and its subheadings as the exterior brought forward, take us beyond the party modality, its necessity, its negotiations. A reflective, skewed panel, oblique, cuts through, segregates a darkened, vague counter with subdued staple containers from curtains that gape open, blood red as Dirk Bogards’ ultimate lips perched on a sandy shore. The truck’s rear is our focus, what we cannot see in that beckoning blue metal chassis rifles our vision, robs us of all our party sense. We are cut out from knowing this secret. 

Visconti was noted for utilizing architectural apertures to frame scenes.  [12] Clark frames a jumble of the remnants of humanity within architectural framing. Clark’s still life of the pile of clothes is a stilled life where a cake allows ‘truth will out’, truth of feeling will always be discovered – all guises are left behind. Cake is what is most important, at the forefront, the symbol of all that is good and enduring in its pink fluffiness, its largess. Stippled as sweet frosting whipped to peaks, demanding as the lighting and blowing of candles in one go, to achieve the unspoken wish. However, there are no candles on this cake. This is the cake of an un-birthday, those days between birthdays, the ordinary days where the encrusting of swaddled photographs take place and the mass of the past becomes a swell, hooks to hold all the memories a drawing to be barely discernible. Clark cloaks the smother of memory, past and future expectations, giving us a party, besides. All wishes are but one – let’s retain the birthday party feeling, perpetually and with the joyfulness of childhood, or at least, the rumpled bundled memories of childhood joy.

[1] First line of the popular birthday song adapted from ‘Good Morning to All’, originally published in Song Stories for the Kindergarten (Chicago: Clayton E. Summy Co., 1896), as cited by Snyder, Agnes. Dauntless Women in Childhood Education, 1856–1931. 1972. Washington, D.C.: Association for Childhood Education International. p. 244.
[3] Kitchen, Kenneth A. (1970). "Two donation stelae in the Brooklyn Museum". Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt. P. 59
[4] Ray, J. D. (2007). The Rosetta Stone and the rebirth of Ancient Egypt. Harvard University Press. P. 136
[7] Daniel A. Fink, ‘Vermeer's Use of the Camera Obscura: A Comparative Study,’ in The Art Bulletin 53, 1971, p. 495.
[8] Roland Barthes, ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ in Image, Music, Text , trans. Stephen Heath, Hill and Wang, 1977: pp. 38-39
[9] Bell, David (2004). Ukiyo-e Explained. Global OrientalISBN 978-1-901903-41-6.
[10] Michener, James A. (1959). Japanese Print: From the Early Masters to the Modern. Charles E. Tuttle Company.  P. 59.

[12] Ivo Blom, ‘Frame, space narrative. Doors, windows, and mobile framing in the work of Luchino Visconti’, in: Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, series Film & Media Studies, Vol. 2, 2010, pp. 91-106:

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