Melbourne

Tony Clark

Anna Schwartz Gallery

In the past, Tony Clark created schematic versions of seventeenth-century landscape painting, reminiscent in particular of the work of Claude Lorrain. These panoramas in cheap oil paint on small canvas boards suggested an intellectualized classicism that seemed calculated to offend. During the early ’80s, when he posed wrapped in a Roman toga to accompany an interview in which he rhapsodized about Italian Fascist architecture, Clark even encouraged critics to mistake him for a second-generation Carlo Maria Mariani.

The landscapes announced themes Clark has since continued to pursue. At once sincere and ironic, they pointed to the critical avant-garde rather than the unprofessionalism suggested by their materials and sketchy technique. In the mid ’80s he went on to paint a series of panels—based on a plasticine model of a Chinese pagoda—that dealt with orientalizing conventions in Western painting. More recently, he has combined illusionism and quotations from Islamic calligraphy to create a Fred Flintstone version of Kufic script, with calligraphic forms cut, bent, and twisted into trompe l’oeil wall-reliefs. These forms, which derive from the decorative traditions of Asian art, suggest the contours of tree branches.

In his recent exhibition, Clark spelled out painting’s two-dimensional nature, refusing the avant-garde imperative that painting should occupy an expanded field. The modest, even presumptuously slight paintings that were shown are tall thin verticals—oil on narrow wooden supports that are, in fact, long stretcher bars. Here, Clark turned the repetitive, asymmetrical decoration of his previous series into measured architectural forms: Parvatasana, 1997, for example, is as much a column as a painting. These fifteen works are loosely covered in Brancusi-like lozenge motifs that suggest spinal vertebrae. They were hung just far enough apart to make it impossible to view more than one at once; they were so narrow that the details of each painting were only visible at close range. Clark’s paint application is sloppy enough that it cannot be labeled decorative, yet competent enough to allow him to manipulate figure-ground relation­ships in a ragalike modulation of colors across a limited tonal and color range.

These “pictures” depend on viewers recognizing their conflation of awkward style with stylishness, a coded sign for painting’s only possible place in the schema of contemporary art. Outside the walls of a pristine white cube, Clark’s dec­orated stretcher bars wouldn’t work as art at all, because their stylish messiness and purposeful thinness would disappear in proximity to competing colors or shapes. His paintings are explicitly dependent on the gallery space, although Clark has consistently adopted the role of the autodidact aesthete: most of his works are made on a miniature scale, and might be suited to ho­tel rooms and mantelpieces. These lucid works make it clear that his project is about the painterly possibilities of sculpture, and about installation having a parasitic relationship to the history of painting. It is equally obvious that he sees the essential support of painting, and art, as sheer style.

Charles Green