Pete Clarke
Website Design by Tony Knox 2006 - 2011.
All images copyright of the artist.


Project 5 : Paintings and Representations of the Changing  City

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by Pam Meecham

"The 'idealist' realist artwork, one which pictured production as tangible, fundamental truth, has evaporated, a victim of the recognition that the master narratives, even those of liberation, were always going to be repressive". Terry Smith (1996)

all that is soild melts into air 1987

Modernity and modernisation are historically linked: the social conditions of today are the product of the technical, scientific and political changes ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. The experience of modernity has largely been a metropolitan affair with the countryside allotted the role of rural, rustic 'other'. Even if from a postmodern perspective we no longer accept the notion of a universal experience of modernity, metropolitan development has been central to the 'fleeting and ephemeral' experience of modern life. The 'rootless cosmopolitan' and émigré transgressed national boundaries to utilise the city as locus of the intricate exchanges of communication, alienation and development that have constituted life in the city. By the turn of the nineteenth century the cityscape, with its icons to modernity, its towering edifices, statues and streets populated by the displaced and the newly respectable, replaced history and myth as the subject of ambitious painting.

Karl Marx envisaged a revolutionary metropolis that would act as the catalyst and sweep away all fixed, fast, social relations, where famously, 'all that's solid would melt into air'. With 1989 and the demise of the Eastern Bloc, so the advertising and academic hype make clear, the city or at least our quaint attachment to it has been eroded to make way for the super highway and 'electronic cottage'. Fixed, fast social relations have been swept away, although not in the form Marx envisaged. Rapidly changing social interactions and our relationship to moments of the past, it would seem, have become problematic.

The historian, Eric Hobsbawm observed, that currently we are living, 'in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the past' [1] If our current condition can be characterised as one of lost certainties, Clarke's paintings act as an archaeology of knowledge where fragments of the past, the modern city, its politics, monuments and manifestos coalesce. In these paintings, metropolitan images, many of Liverpool, are juxtaposed with a history of modernist painting. Modernism, no easier to locate a precise definition now than a hundred years ago, is still an area of considerable controversy. In terms of painting its allocated role is of radical exploration of media, allied to a rejection of academic and bourgeois norms. Primacy is often given to the texture and colour of expressionistic forms. Clarke appropriates the formal language of modernist experimentation and in almost baroque form melds it with the excluded histories of the city. A de legitimated historic past, meets a beleaguered modernist art form. The paintings depict the tropes of power and knowledge but do not present a coherent past from the vantage point of the present. Power and knowledge are of course dependent on each other for legitimation. These works articulate this symbiotic link but leave the questions unanswered. The Apollonian restraint of the Walker Art Gallery's Nicolas Poussin Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (1648), depicting the disgraced Athenian hero ignominiously buried in an alien land, is played out against the text, Changed and Not New.

The city and its monuments are at the core of a section of Clarke's earlier work. Monuments are almost invisible in the city by virtue of their banal familiarity. They are however crucial in establishing a kind of 'collected memory'[2] of what is important to retain of the past and crucially the form of that remembering.

[1] Hobsbawm, Eric Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century 1914 1991.
[2] See Young, James Texture of Memory

Civic pride and the fragments of text are combined often in arcane ways to make a critique of the past, to remind us that the arts no less than any other form of production is ideological and therefore an apparatus of state control. The public monument was one of the casualties of modernism. The apparent ease with which we celebrated past victories and the confident rhetoric of national pride sat uneasily beside the modernist notion of the subjective self and a sculptural practice that seems more about individual contemplation than pride in collective endeavour. Alterity, currently mitigates against representing others, against the notion of a collective identity. Modern sculpture in public places, abandoning the pedestal and the traditional materials of bronze and stone, has been marked by its very lack of permanence. In these paintings the re emergence of the Victorian monuments and eclectic architectural details (signifiers of public order, civic and national citizenship) act as a reminder of their absent presence and of their value laden orthodoxies. Disparate cityscapes become follies and the inhabitants (external, internal, public, private) remind us of unresolved conflicts, political, artistic and social.


The paintings in this exhibition are representative of a dilemma that became a paradox during the late twentieth century; the artist's relationship to paint and politics. In summary, is the artist, necessarily, an agent of social change or is the production of art determined by the political and social praxis of any given historical moment? Given the first, rather than the absolute determinism of the second, can any sort of social transformation come about through the application of paint to canvas? This dilemma is a major preoccupation for many artists aware of the consequences for society that the move from analogue to digital technologies has brought about. Changes in art production, storage and exchange have increasingly undermined our sense of self but the issue surfaced much earlier in the history of modern art. The issue has, in recent years, threatened to submerge artistic practice into a catatonic state of inaction or indifferentism. A subsidence into forms of solipsism, that only the self is knowable or a relativism that validates a withdrawal from the broader political arena to niche areas of practice, has been widespread.

Clarke's work of the eighties and nineties revisits some of the debates by returning to Edouard Manet whose 'concrete realism' for some historians marked the start of the modernist project. The American critic, Michael Fried, in Manet's Sources, observed that Manet's art did a kind of violence to the past, that his referencing of earlier artists (Giorgione, Goya, Velasquez) was an attempt to 'reclaim the past, to re possess it, and thereby to establish its presence in his art in a new way... to liquidate the past and so enter a new world'. The familiarity of the modernist rhetoric of originality and authenticity is rehearsed here.

Liverpool Clinic 1982

Fried continues to assert that, after Manet, only the art of the immediate past is relevant. What was needed was an engagement with the 'historical present'. Foregrounding future modernist practices, he maintained that 'no painter since Manet has been faced with the need to secure the connectedness of his art to that of the distant past, to the enterprise of the Old Masters. With Manet's paintings of the first half of the sixties, that simply and without notice disappeared as a problem for painting'. To revisit Manet then is to resuscitate a fugitive enterprise.

The battle for custody of Manet's project has preoccupied writers and artists for several decades. For American critics Fried and Greenberg, writing a century later, Manet was conscripted into the progressive move towards abstraction. The teleology of Greenberg's project is well rehearsed and so will occupy no further time here except to say that Manet's formalism and political engagement has been most cogently analysed in T.J. Clark's early works.[31 Clark sites Manet's work within the broader social and political climate of Modernity in 19th century Paris. Pete Clarke's work continues the discursive debate by questioning the dominance of the formalist modernist position within twentieth century art: questioning how can or why should art works be a separate sphere of aesthetic activity? In doing this Clarke bypasses the obvious choices of the infamous Olympia (1865) or The Bar at the Folies Bergeres (1882). He 'borrows' the dying Manet's last works, the flower paintings from 1881 1883, both in homage to the father of modernism but also as a timely reminder of some of the unfinished projects of modernity. Flowers function as emblems and are forced to occupy the symbolic function placed upon them. Annexed to social and political causes they resonate.

There is another historical shade in these paintings: the language of another modernism, construction. Taking another historical precedent, Clarke reworks the Utopian modernist project of Russian Constructivism where, in part, the aesthetic was seen as retrogressive, imbibed with the language of composition. Rodchenko maintained that 'the inaccurate, trembling line traced by the hand cannot compare with the straight and precise line drawn with the set square, reproducing the design exactly. Hand crafted work will have to try to be more industrial, Drawing as it wasconceived in the past loses its value and is transformed into diagram or geometric projection'. Alexander Rodchenko, The Line.

[3] See Eds: Frascina, F. and Harrison, C. Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment
of 'Olympia' in 1865 1982
Clark, T. J. Image of the People Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution
Thames and Hudson 1973
Clark, T. J. The Absolute Bourgeois Artist and Politics in France 1848 1851
Thames and Hudson 1973

The language of expression and gesture vies with the revolutionary programmes of Wassily Kandinsky and Alexander Rodchenko not in the hope of resolution but through juxtapositions and mixed codes to question the palpable ambiguities of the ideologies that make up the histories of modern painting.

Clarke's works, while drawing on constructivism and expressionist brush strokes, toy with the avant gardist sense of continually searching for the new, the innovative, that philosopher George Simmel as earlyas 1900 in Philosophy of Money predicted, would result in the commodification of culture. The quest for novelty in art would turn it into a fashion accessory for the rich. The spectre of commodification haunts these paintings like Malvollo at the feast. Political art goes in and out of fashion but Clarke tenaciously reworks the old dilemmas and paradoxes. The self conscious reworking of historical models and motifs, the revisiting of theoretical grand narratives (Marxism) is linked to the forbidden fruit of pleasure in paint in order to extract the possibility of meaning for both. Clarke's handling of paint is both critical and heretical. It recalls the painterly modernism of Greenberg who argued that the lasting shock of the new 'had to do with his (Manet's) handling of the medium alone .Similarly, the Impressionists, coming in Manet's wake, caused shock or scandal by nothing more than the way they used paint' (Greenberg 1965).

Manet's legacy is the fought over terrain of modernism, the opening skirmishes in establishing what an avant garde could be and the terms by which it would resist commodity status and the 'perils' of mass culture. Manet's paintings were 'the first modernist ones by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were painted' (Greenberg 1965) The debate hardened in the 1970s and 1980s and many artists abandoned painting altogether in favour of supposedly less value laden new technologies. The anti expressionism of some postmodern theorists (see particularly The Expressive Fallacy Hal Foster) saw the mphasis on the expressive possibilities of the painted surface asa retreat from the fray. Clarke's work takes the most seductive of media frequently abandoned because of its historical legacy and attempts to retrieve its critical possibilities. The battle for realism is still being playedout in paint but not exclusively so.

Collage and Realism

Clarke often incorporates into his paintings, fragments of the 'real' such as newspaper cuttings, old photographs, torn books. The early modernist strategy, adopted by the Cubist enterprise as a means of exposing the artificiality of paint, canvas and depicted objects, has been appropriated into postmodern theory. Here, the claim to primacy of collage as an art form is its ability to bring together diverse elements, to double code and operate at different levels but also to allow for quotation and repetition. This, at least in part, undermines the notion of the original author, one of the fictions of modernism. Clarke's work uses irony, eclecticism and historical sources in a Brechtian way to remind the viewer that we are engaged in a kind of fiction but that through this fiction we might gain a glimpse of another reality.

Environs - Structures: Cleaning the Titian 1991

Interventionist art practice is usually characterised by binary oppositions: the realism of the real against the fiction of paint. Too often realism, in art, has been linked to ideas around resemblance. In the minds of the public and authoritarian regimes (particularly Socialist Realism) at least the closer the image to a recognisable, identifiable object, person, place, the greater the worth. Accessibility and political commitment have at several significant moments been synonymous with more figurative forms of realism. Clarke's work does flirt with the forms of realism so familiar in the 1930s Depression work of Americas New Deal and post war British domestic realism. The views of Liverpool show an engagement with real places and recognisable monuments, however, any straight forward correlation of place and depiction would be simplistic. Although the century's early realists worked with paint, increasingly collage and mixed media became a more convincing way of operating. To render the ordinary and everyday as real it became important to reveal the underlying structures that supported the system of class relations that were difficult to expose through mimetic realism.

The satirical Dada collages of John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch that attacked the society and politics of Weimar Germany, set a precedent for political artists working against comfortable armchair art. Like the montage work of the Russian filmmaker Eisenstein, a realism predicated upon traditional narratives and sequences that engaged in a fiction of an illusory realism, was rejected by many artists as a working method. All realisms are contingent, although not just that, but an acknowledgement of that partiality is crucial. Clarke's paintings create a tension between the need to depict the instability of modern life and the underlying structures that commodify our existence with the competing claims of art's presumed internal laws.

The references to Manet's flower paintings combined with text reminds the viewer of the possibility of an art that is relatively autonomous that is still governed by its own internal rules. The dilemma still occupies the artists who have not abandoned art for the indifferentism or nihilism of much post modern work. The competing demands of a realism that does not slide into the clichéd or propagandist and a painterly realism that does not slip into the merely decorative world of tasteful abstractions often leads to a pyrrhic victory. Clarke's work attempts to uncover social relations, a form of social critique particularly pertinent to the city of Liverpool but not exclusively so. His work reveals the contradictions inherent in civic and Victorian order and the fragmentation of the city in paint and text

Letters to Language. The relationship of language to art is marked by competing claims. The interplay of the visual and the verbal is not always cohesive. At the level of the routinely rehearsed we do not read words in the way that we read pictures which represent differently languages sometimes seems an inadequate tool with which to approach any understanding of a painting. The encroachment of text into art, sometimes resulting in purely text based works has been a marker of progressive work since the early Cubist collage. The artist's lexicon has been extended to incorporate words and ideas assimilated from literary theory and sociology into art works. Poststructuralist theories have pointed out the instability of language's relationship to language. Letters to Language resonates with the ambiguities that text offers. The American poet, Emily Dickinson in fragmented works famously offered her poetry as 'my letter to the world that never wrote to me.' Dickinson's work explored the limits of language, a kind of 'poetry of disembodiment'. The Amherst recluse withdrew from the world, her art, her poems being her contribution to the world. Within the romantic world of self sacrifice for art, Dickinson is paradigmatic. The 'letters' she believed revealed the soul and so her calculated withdrawal and isolationism is measured against her poetry. Clarke's use of the feminine letter form has something of the poet in it. In addition, however, the knowledge that language, or at least a 'realist' concept of language, is probably flawed lurks behind the written text. To see our words as neutral representations of the world with fixed meanings of a fixed reality is no longer a simple option. structuralist denial of definitive truths and the play of constructivist devices sets up the possibility of new interpretations.

Clarke's 'letter to the world', addresses memory, artifice and loss. They invite the viewer to question from their own subjective position. There is a possibility of a collapse into relativism and the harsh terrain of deconstruction that would omit an infinite number of interpretations. The upside is the opening up of possibilities, the open question. Clarke's work attempts to make a visual equivalent of the social, political and aesthetic conditions that inform our fragmentary lives.

Pam Meecham
Liverpool John Moores University
April 1998


Eds: Frascina, Francis and Harrison, Charles Modern Art and Modernism
: A critical Anthology Harper and Row 1982
Greenberg, Clement Modernist Painting 1965
Hobsbawm, Eric Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century 19141991.
Eds: Nelson and Shift Critical Terms for Art History, Essay by Terry Smith Modes of Production Chicago 1996 Loving, Jerome Emily Dickinson the poet on the Second Story Cambridge University Press 1986.

Manet's Corner 1997