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Gallery View: Great gesticulations

Photo courtesy of the artist, Charles Clough

The Way to Cluffalo

Whether measured at twelve-by-ten inches or twelve-by-ten feet, Charles Clough’s paintings invariably come off as grandiose. For forty years, this artist has been reinventing strategic elements of the Abstract-Expressionist, Pop, and Conceptual vocabularies to create paintings both intensely self-conscious and gloriously insouciant. How tongue-in-cheek is the artist? It varies according to his mood. Does it matter? Only if you feel that choosing one form of expression over another requires justification, or that the act of engaging in an act as romanticized as abstract painting must necessarily be tinged with irony.

Starting this month, at the University at Buffalo Art Galleries, Western New York audiences will be able to see a selection of works from Clough’s entire art-making career. Called On the Road to Clufffalo, it is the first such comprehensive exhibition for the artist and includes more than 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, and artist books from the seventies through 2011.

Born in Buffalo, Clough studied briefly in New York and then Toronto. He returned here, and, in 1974, cofounded Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center with fellow artists Cindy Sherman, Diane DiBertolo, Robert Longo, Nancy Dwyer, and Michael Zwack. The scene they created is legendary; to learn more, try the “history” and “timeline” options at the hallswalls.org site, where you may also download a PDF of Consider the Alternatives: 20 Years of Contemporary Art at Hallwalls.

In the mid-seventies, Clough combined circular smears of gestural painting with photographic reproductions, allowing ghosts of the appropriated imagery to occasionally appear through the paint; often these works were cut into elongated shapes. He dispensed with the reproductions in the mid-eighties, keeping the bright colors and upping the ante on the gestures, which include sharp slashes, fat billows, and sweeping arcs of color. In the nineties, the artist began experimenting with painted objects and 3-D photography, but somehow the work is still always about painting—or at least our relationship with it.

Also in the nineties, Clough created the ultimate gestural painting tool—the Big Finger, a crude mechanism consisting of a wooden pole with a round pad at the end. As always Clough manages to have his cake and eat it too; the Big Finger mechanism distances the artist from the work, but at the same time affirms the visceral, childlike gesture. The artist has invited public participation in his Big Finger artworks, including a project at Artpark’s outdoor amphitheater (where free concerts are held now) in 1995.

In 2010, Clough’s Oh My Goodness project combined an abstract painting with an artist-made flipbook and a movie—a hypnotic montage of 3,789 individual images created from the painting-in-progress. Like Clough’s previous foray into painting over photographic reproductions, Oh My Goodness wallows in imagery, juxtaposing the infinite choices of what we could see with the necessary limitations of what we choose to see. The OMG painting (a version of it), book, and movie will be on hand for the UB show; it provides a dizzying, exhilarating ride though Cloughworld.

The energetic and opinionated painter is also verbally expressive; some favorite statements from the various times he’s been interviewed over the years include the following:
“My work is my excuse to live; my well of fear; felt not understood; I identify it but it doesn’t identify me.” (December, 1980)
“Paying attention to time in films by Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage, even Warhol, changed my sense of what time is in a painting.” (May, 1985)
 “I always thought that my art was about extremism.” (September, 1995)

Viewers encountering Clough for the first time at this show may find that the last quote strikes an immediate chord. This is boundary-testing work in many ways, though not in the political or culture-specific ways we often see now. Rather, the boundaries have to do with pushing our ability to absorb and enjoy painting—and to think about it.

If the advance PR is correct, there should be at least two dozen of these vibrant paintings in each of UB’s galleries. An OMG moment, indeed.

On the Way to Clufffalo is on view at the UB Art Galleries March 31 to May 12, with an opening reception March 31, 6–8 p.m. 




Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.

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