Spotlight: A painter and curator return
Claire Schneider and Charles Clough
Photo of Schnieder courtesy of Biff Henrich
It’s something of a Buffalo aphorism; people leave, but they always come back. Even though it’s not really true—our declining census numbers clearly demonstrate that plenty of folks depart the region for good—a surprising number of those who migrate away do find themselves sucked back into Buffalo’s mysterious magnetic vortex.
Visual art people seem especially susceptible. Maybe it’s the robust and resilient artist community, so practiced in the art of self-sufficiency. Or it might be our world-renowned art museum, artist-run galleries, affordable post-industrial studio space, and low-cost housing that sing the rustbelt siren song.
Two notable denizens of Buffalo’s boomerang art community are Charles Clough and Claire Schneider. Their stories reflect the mix of opportunity, creative succor, and hope that pervades the Nickel City.
Shuffling off to Cluffalo
Charles Clough is something of a legend around these parts. Noted artist, cofounder of Hallwalls, inventor of “arena painting,” big arrow museum prankster—the Buffalo native has carved out a place in the region’s art psyche.
It started when he and his artist friend, Robert Longo, founded Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in 1974. This was two years after the aforementioned museum prank in which Clough stealthily installed a huge sculptural red arrow so it seemed to be skewering the abutment of the Albright-Knox. The piece of guerilla art was promptly removed. (Ironically, it was recreated in 2012 by the museum staff for a seventies-period tribute exhibition.)
Clough left Buffalo for New York City in 1978 to seek wider success. After a strong career start, he hit a third quarter slump. Then, in 2009, things were looking up again. The Metropolitan Museum of Art included him in a major exhibition called The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984. This was followed in 2012 by the highly praised survey show at the Albright-Knox, Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s, which coincided with a career retrospective at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery called Charles Clough: The Way to Clufffalo.
Clough has now returned to town as (at least) a part-time resident, reestablishing his studio in the Hi-Temp Fabrication Building in the downtown Artpark, he began involving spectators in this process, adding a communal element to the work. Clough recently began staging arena painting events in Buffalo, including at last year’s Creative Problem Solving Institute Conference. This past summer at the Echo Art Fair, he showcased his Institute while distributing bright yellow Cluffalo tee-shirts to visitors.
If all this seems like the lead-up to something momentous, that’s exactly what Clough has in mind. “My intention is to become a tourist attraction, cultural diplomat, and value adder for the [Buffalo] community,” states the artist. Using Buffalo as his headquarters, he intends to take arena painting on the road, staging events at museums globally. If all goes well, Clough and Buffalo will be mutual beneficiaries of what the artist calls “cultural diplomacy.” While on his big finger world tour, says Clough, he’ll preach the Buffalo gospel, “and how my experience of it made me the artist I am.”
What may sound like hype to some is all part of being an artist, he stresses, adding, “There is truth to the impression that artists are self-serving egomaniacs. My experience has been that without an overpowering willfulness, artist-hood is unachievable.”
Clough is hardly an egomaniac. In this city, where his achievements are well known, he could easily play the celebrity artist card. Instead, he comes off as warm and personable, generous in his praise and support of others. He is often surprisingly self-effacing, candidly expressing, for instance, his frustration with the arc of his career. “I’d love to have another twenty years of productivity. For the preceding twenty years, I’ve felt like a Ferrari that couldn’t get out of neutral.”
With the move back to Buffalo, Clough is doing some soul searching about the meaning of success and the vagaries of the commercial art world. He holds profoundly conflicting feelings about the business of contemporary art, which he views as muddled by being grounded in both commercial and spiritual economies. “I would prefer to have no regard for the price of my art,” he says. “However, to be meaningful in a society that equates economic value with cultural significance, I can’t.”
The sixty-two-year-old artist says he is “facing death” with the comforting knowledge that a good chunk of his creative output is conserved in over seventy public collections across the country, with a sizable number in local museums, including 400 works at the UB Art Galleries that were donated by Dorothy and Herbert Vogel.
Clough is referring to the legendary New York City art collecting couple who famously amassed a fortune in blue chip contemporary art on Herb Vogel’s modest postal worker salary. The Vogels collected over 600 of Clough’s works. Late in life, the couple donated their entire collection to art museums in all fifty US states. This remarkable act is documented in Herb & Dorothy 50X50, a film by award-winning director Megumi Sasaki, which spotlights Clough and his relationship with the Vogels.
In conversation, Clough often references the significance of “meaning” in art, but there is a sense that he is just as absorbed lately by the meaning of artistic existence. He ponders the chance occurrences that set him on his lifelong trajectory. A romantic breakup, for instance, led him early on to find within himself a degree of motivation he might not otherwise have found. Getting jilted set wheels in motion that continue to impact his life today. Now the artist is positioning himself for a course change. As it did at the start of his career, Buffalo will play a significant role.
Food for thought
“I feel like there is a new energy here to do something—something I didn’t feel when I left for Arizona in 2008.” Independent curator Claire Schneider is commenting on the art scene in Buffalo, where she is living and working for the second time in her career. Raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Schneider moved here in 1998 to become an associate curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG).
She spent a decade in that position, working on numerous exhibitions and publications, including the spectacular Extreme Abstraction, which involved reinstalling the entire museum, something that had never been done in the museum’s history. “As a curator, the Albright-Knox is kind of a dream,” says Schneider.“It has an amazing existing collection of modern and contemporary art, but it’s also actively adding new work.”
In 2008, Schneider left the AKAG to take a position as senior curator at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) near Phoenix, Arizona. In a parting interview with Buffalo News art critic Colin Dabkowski, Schneider reflected on leaving Buffalo: “I can think of no cities of Buffalo’s size that could boast such a range of venues and committed individuals. Buffalo has been a kind of second home for me, and leaving home is always hard.”
Schneider enjoyed living in Arizona. “I loved the desert and the fast pace of life at an art space focused solely on contemporary art,” she says. But there were things about Western New York she missed: “While Phoenix is much bigger than Buffalo, it’s a new city so the cultural scene didn’t have the depth that Buffalo’s does.” SMoCA provided the opportunity to do some “great things,” but, after two years, Schneider was headed east.
“Coming back to Buffalo happened for a number of reasons,” says the curator. For one thing, Schneider was in a long distance relationship with her boyfriend, who was still working in Buffalo. Since her return, they have married. The downturn in the economy also played a decisive role: “The recession, or whatever people want to call it, that largely seems to have bypassed Buffalo, hit Arizona like a ton of bricks. It was dramatic and sudden and the arts were hit really hard.” Schneider also had some projects in the works in cities outside Arizona, and “working from Buffalo seemed the best option for us.”
Since being back, Schneider has curated exhibitions in several cities, a major achievement being More Love: Art, Politics, and Sharing Since the 1990s. The exhibition and catalogue for the Ackland Art Museum in North Carolina brought together thirty-three artists, including many art world luminaries, who address various aspects of human love. Former University at Buffalo (UB) MFA graduate Chris Barr was included in More Love, and noted art historian and UB professor Jonathan Katz wrote an essay for the book.
Schneider has also launched CS1 Curatorial Projects, which aims to create unique art projects in unexpected spaces in town. “Wherever I have been, I have always liked being a part of the community, and this is a way for me to be involved in Buffalo,” she notes. The first two CS1 projects took place at last summer’s Echo Art Fair.
Schneider’s fair booth contained two side-by-side performance installations. Meaningful Offers brought Chris Barr back to Buffalo to set up a “business office” to promote bartering for art and services. Bear in mind, this was taking place in an art fair— unexpected indeed, since these fine art trade shows have become associated with slam-bang consumerism. Barr asked participants to consider another model of artistic commerce. The resulting barter offerscan be seen at meaningfuloffers.com.
The other installation, Eat Your Hearts Out, is an ongoing collaboration between Houston-based conceptual artist Lynne McCabe and creative chef Colleen Stillwell. “I have always wanted to pair food and art,” says Schneider. Her approach to doing this is a type of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) where agri-products serve as the art medium. The selection of locally sourced ingredients, methods of preparation, and food combinations all function metaphorically and conceptually to create artistic meaning. Of course, they look and taste good, too.
Subscribers (art collectors with an appetite) purchasing one of the ten limited edition subscriptions received three meals for two, each exploring an aspect of Buffalo’s history: past, present, and future. The dinners came with artist-designed boxes and menus.
Eat Your Heart Out subscription meals are concluding this month, but Schneider promises more innovative projects in the future. Her interest is in social practice art, in which the viewer is a participant. The defining factor for Schneider is engagement in the social fabric of Buffalo life.
Despite everything going for it, Schneider believes Buffalo has room to improve, including more published criticism of local art—both here and nationally—for one thing. Professional development for artists is another area where she thinks she can help. And collectors, she says, are integral to a strong art scene, in some cases “more important to a young artist’s career than a museum.” She is also hoping to facilitate that process.
Schneider is optimistic about Buffalo’s emergent potential. “It feels,” she says, “like an exciting time to be back.”
Artist Bruce Adams is also an educator, arts activist, and Spree’s art critic.