To see on the second floor of a quiet area of Brownstone on Jefferson Avenue, a certain ghostly charm reigns around the work of Cathleen Clarke. It is a presence that is both literal and figurative.
Directly, her paintings are adaptations of images Clarke collected of family members and associated found objects. These are figuratively projected in oil and on canvas, where his striking, muted color palette transforms them into nonspecific, shapeless memories that are themselves, in turn, both strange and mysterious.
But it’s Clarke’s choice, or perhaps the choice of the weather, to blur the faces that speak most directly to the dread that so deliberately floats in the air during the tenth month of every year. They look like ghosts, suddenly caught in the act of being truly ghostly.
The effect is deliberate. “Whatever Hour You Woke There Was a Door Shutting”, Clarke’s solo exhibition at the Fou Gallery, takes its title directly from the opening lines of Virginia Woolf’s short but joyful story “A Haunted House,” the opening salvo from the writer’s 1921 short. collection of “Monday or Tuesday” stories.
Woolf’s observational modernism in this story had anticipated his later more accomplished works, and his influence can be read similarly to that of Clarke, who boasts of turning the humdrum into moments of contemplation. (“Each coat of paint interprets a moment in time that would otherwise have been overlooked or forgotten, evoking a fading reminiscence,” according to her art dealer website.)
But Clarke’s work is more visually accomplished than this sort of stylized praise might suggest. The everyday objects she collects here have a sort of sterile study that reinvents the ordinary with a frightening glow. The Brooklyn painter’s latest exhibition, for example, cleverly combines a small illustration of a yellow glove (“The Glove”, a recent piece) with his interpretation of a remarkably austere cup of coffee, the latter with the title much more illustrates “Strange Weather.” The yellows of both reflect as if both are lit by the same pumpkin lantern. The glove fingers drip from their empty wrists, and the effect makes them look like shadows hanging from a tree.
The washed-out approach to figurative art might be reminiscent of the current vogue for quietly awakening art. Clarke’s dark emotional landscapes, centered largely on the cloistered lives of women of the last century, reminded me of the anxious paintings of Shannon Cartier Lucy, currently on display and acclaim at the Lubov in Manhattan. The pair’s realistic styles differ, but their emphasis on minimal and homemade is shared. The two painters search deeply through a domestic visual language to find what crawls, what haunts and what remains unearthed. Their work, therefore, seems fragmentary, part of a whole that remains just beyond expression.
These are the portraits that characterize the effect in “Whatever time you wake up …”. Where Lucy’s women look away, Clarke’s interest in reusing stilted, staged photography creates portraits whose eyes dive directly into yours. In one, which is near the end of the show and just above the quiet street, Clarke’s grandmother stares straight ahead in a nightgown, her hand just under her mouth in what looks like a gasp or a yawn. In another, a pale child gazes forward, his face reduced to traces of pockmarked bright red paint. In a number of crowd scenes gathered here, sinister faces cluster around the dinner table, and the reasons for gathering seem distant and unknowable.
The reality of the matter – at all times we are constantly confronted with the feeling that these are people who have existed and who have left without knowing the future of their fuzzy faces – gives the small gallery the feeling of a tidy mausoleum tucked away in away from the world. Old furniture fills the room in a wooden part of a brown stone dating from the early years of the 20th century, relatively recently redone as “an alternative to the commercial model of mainstream galleries”. But the most interesting question is what is hiding in such a quiet space.
“No matter what time you woke up, there was a door closing” will be on view at Galerie Fou in 410 Jefferson Avenue until November 28. The gallery is open on Saturdays and also by appointment. Check it out here.
All photos: Andrew Karpan
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