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

Project 8 'Letters to Language',
Solo Exhibition, Cornerhouse, Manchester 1996

'‘Letters to Language: Dear Missing’


Pete Clarke is an artist who combines images of the urban landscape with fragments of text which can or cannot be connected to the painted image. There is a perversity of the delight of using painted language juxtaposed with the freedom and openness which Clarke employs on his canvas through the use of texture and colour. Clarke alerts us (as does James Joyce) that language is as gestural and transformative as the physical stuff of oil paint on canvas.

Clarke's dialogue with the spectator is not however played out in a polemical way, his pragmaticism is displayed through the physical properties of the surface which show a considered process of intensive making over many months.

'Letters to Language' has a materiality about it that brings art back from the abyss of the super information highway. Clarke's paintings transmit a personal and intensive flow of communication but it is a dialogue that each spectator comes to in their own time not by the press of a keyboard but through the emotions of quiet reflective contemplation.

Stephen Snoddy


In Praise of Slow Communication

By Sean Cubitt

Greenbank Road Studio installation on 'Capital' 26 interrelated paintings 1992 -1996


The business, the busyness, the industry, the financial glyphs, the race of colour. fragmentation and oblique brushstrokes that since the futurists have been the breathless iconography of speed, the dromocratic hegemony of the 20th century's modern: you want, in an impossible search for translation, to list methods and motifs in hurtling, punctuated sentences as fractured as these composite canvases. But to add prose percussion to the fast surfaces of the Letters to Language would be to promulgate a profound misunderstanding, that comprehension can be undertaken at speeds greater than the processes of making. James Joyce once asked his readers to take as long to read the Wake as he did writing it. (Perhaps half a dozen crazed academics have done just that. A certain sense of proportion is necessary after all).

'Capital' Series Hope I X I V I U / Guilt

Capital' Series Hope

Joyce's remaking of the medium of language, as a medium, and as the medium of thought and fantasy, the intimate medium, is one pole of a modernism whose other cryptic extreme is the utterly external analytic of the medium undertaken in Duchamp's Large Glass, one of whose titles is Delay in Glass. That delay has something to do with the slowness of glass plate photography, the minutes of stasis required of those Victorians, posed in deep thought among unmoving sunlit graves, that Walter Benjamin describes.

'Capital' Series Belief

'Capital' Series Guilt

And the lazy relay of the fall of light on some distant afternoon delayed a century or more until we come to look at its effect. The delay, most of all, that might occur as, passing through the galleries, you stop, intrigued, to allow one work to work as you work, tracing the fractal gravure of that old light.

Not New : Not Changed 1994


‘Changed: Not New’ 1999

In Pete Clarke's canvases, such delays occur, between the intimacies of Anna Livia Plurabelle and the cold edge of words, the ontological refractions of the Large Glass and the psychomorphisms of The Bride Stripped Bare. Iconography, technique, composition and installation, the categories of canonical analysis and post structural interests in the materiality of art, meld upon the single ground of the choice of paint, which is no longer a simple, neither categorical nor a cure. But it is, as Clarke practices it, work of and in representation which unpicks the obsessive speed of both technological media and their commentators, a considered art of consideration, a lethargic mulling through the Süt?,wein of picturing, in which Lethe's considerate waters wash the viewer's, as the painter's, responses of their habitual accretions, standing pictorial evocations over against the immediacy of media that seek invisibility.

'Letters to Language Installation : Code names 3 Month Gallery, Liverpool 1996


The Letters, first, are letters, typographics, fonts, calligraphies, themselves composed, discomposed and recomposed as print, stencil, découpage, collage letters restored to the chill air of denatured abstraction even as they fall from the insensate grace of reason to private symbol and the irredeemable personality of the hand. Like a child learning that b is a fat boy hiding behind a wall, the letters which painting sends back to language are at the same time the minions of the information economy and the brute and unresolvable forms of a dyslexic pictography whose every phase and phase transition slows down transmission, until the medium challenges the message.

'Letters to Language' 'Dear Artifice' 1995 (detail)

Few digital artists are as profoundly influenced in their work by the materiality of informatics as Clarke is in this obsolete praxis. Painting is important today becauseit is dead. To protest the death of painting is as futile as protesting the death of God. But in its afterlife, painting attains the critical delay which, in separating it from the urgent quotidian, turns it into the ghostly ancestor that haunts the hypermodern feast. Like Tiresias, this shade that has been everything and now is nothing brings the sharpened edge of prophecy to visual politics.
Today, in the era of vision's triumph, the politics of vision has fallen victim to its own haste.

'‘Letters to Language: Dear Memory’

No longer a matter of representation, Western visual culture has become the terrain of symbolisation, of graphemes isolated from their discourses, pictures separated from what they depict by the very speed of their circulation. The relation between world, medium and audience has been cauterised in the substitution of information for world, and transmission for mediation, to create the isolation of the modern consumer. The works in both Capital and Letters to Language become the slow harbingers of a vacuum at the heart of semantic functionality. They are not works about the collapse of meaning, but about the vacuity of this vacuum: the difficulty of meaning under a triumphal capitalism that seeks to erase it under the fetishised commodity form, as utility and as exchange. The work of Clarke's canvases is to rediscover meaning as that relationship between people which, as Marx has it, appears to them as a relation between things.
'Letters to Language' 'Dear Abstraction' 1996

The uncritical accolades for intertextuality that litter art and cultural criticism over the last 30 years misunderstand the processes of capital: the intertextuality of the Sunday colour supplements is precisely a relationship between media, as objects: not people, not subjects. Like the Dionysian terror that haunts the Apollonian iconography of Poussin's Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, migrated from Liverpool's Walker Gallery to the composition of Dear Memory, the violence done in the name of King Cash underwrites the classical architectures of banks, the geometric purity of fiscal graphs. But where Victorian modernity clung to the icons of stability, the accelerated demands of globalised info capital celebrate the stasis of the whirlwind, the mocking zen of the strange attractor. Capital need no longer fear Marx's piercing analysis of 'all that is solid melts into the air': it has made change and velocity its own heraldic devices. Everyone sees the whizzing images: no one notes the still frame of the TV screen.

''Letters to Language' Greenbank Road Studio Installation 1996

These paintings do not abandon meaning, value or reason. With the use of serial techniques like screen printing and èolour photos, Clarke addresses the fall of passion into its signifiers as analytically as his bravura paint handling, not the expression of inner turmoil, but an investigation of what it means to make that passionate engagement conform to a lexicon of formalised techniques. We know that the expressionist move in modern painting has always come up against the formalisation of its classic gestures, just as Hollywood's stars give us the common vocabulary of lust and anger from a database of grimaces and tics as familiar as the alphabet. We know too that the fragmentation of vision among the impressionists became the foundation of mechanical vision, from colour photography to satellite surveillance. The 20th century history of graphic design is a prolonged attempt to recover from the isolation of letters on the typewriter keyboard; of cinema to anchor the autonomy of the human in the autonomy of the machine; of science to rationalise the inhuman. Our epoch is one swaying drunkenly between reason and madness, two halves torn apart in the administrative logic of an economy that still requires the fury of invention for its survival.

'Letters to Language' 'Dear Loss' 1996

If, as John Roberts argues, painting is peculiarly suited to carrying out work on history, Clarke is a painter. The point of the work is not to urge a reconciliation between rationality and passion the undertaking of Matisse, uniquely the most typical of modern painters but to understand the histories of their divorce. Take the motif of the folly in these works. Architecture is supposedly the art of space, abstracting from the sheer dimensionality of the world forms for habitation. Yet most architecture, quite apart from its apparent ignorance of time, administers the rigourously managed spaces of Cartesian geometry. Only the folly, purposeless it seems, serves not only as the antiphonal descant to architecture's reason, but as the persistence of another mode of thought, the critical modernity of Erasmus' Praise of Folly, whose satire modulates into celebration of Christ's folly in dying on the Cross: the folly of redemption. The monument builder, as engineer of madness, is the type of the artist, caught in the stupidity of trying to construct a critique of commodity communication within a commodity form, like the supernatural in a mortal body.

Clarke's pragmatism is as much a matter of the making of the work as it is of its ostensible content. The canvases are worked as surfaces and as labour and urge a recognition of that work which mass culture denigrates in its entertainments and its assumption of the pose of effortlessness. So, for example, the 'expressive' brushwork not only functions as critique of expression, but returns as a meditation on the artisanal, the traces of a making which continues over months and is abandoned rather than completed. The alphabet of Capital is such a project of incompletion, not as resistance to or subversion of the dominant mode of communication, but as an alternative circulation, its difference derived from the internal differences of language as alphabet and as speech, but pledged to a conception of communication, even of communion, which is excluded from the commodity form.

The Letters to Language face a different problem, metaphorically the problem of the missing address: where should these letters be sent? The paintings' legends give us Clarke's pro tem solution: Dear Memory, Dear Loss, Dear Deficit, Dear Artifice, Dear Monochrome, Dear Missing, Dear Shadow, Dear Abstraction... In the delay between painting and language, and from the perspective of painting, language, as information and transmission, is a process which historically has removed itself from a materiality to which painting might lure it back. Abstraction is not a point of origin, but a labour in which you remove the trappings of the actual in favour of the stable shape of the ideal. But that ideal increasingly resembles the commodity itself, gradually stripped of use to approximate the final signified of contemporary capital, total consumption, without object or subject. The testimony of this impossible abstraction, the lure of the reconciliation of individual and world in their mutual annihilation, gives Clarke his addresses. The serial form itself mimics the industrialisation of communication only to unpick its internal dialectic of emptiness and plenitude.

'Letters to Language' 'Dear Moment' 1996

The force of the works here is not to expose or even to reject these dialectical prisons of the communicative universe. In our historical condition, that is no more important than telling us that there is light in the room. Communication is unavoidable: to communicate and to be human are synonymous, though communication has been transformed, over centuries, into economy to the point that all communication has become economic in some way. The effort has to be first to maintain the possibility of communication through the struggle to communicate. Here, all is delay, even more than it is lack or loss. The letters all arrive aftei language has already moved on, discovering in its place its traces deficit, memor\ shadow. These are the conditions of the contemporary obsession with an impossibft instantaneity, the dream of the utterly transparent, utterly efficient messag couched in the language of speed. The material of communication is its inconvu nience, in the sense that its real duration and distance demands calm moments o otiose exploration, a return to pleasure in the place of excitement.

And then, to explore the grounds on which communication may occur at all. In the choice of painting, Clarke chooses silence, but in his use of letters, instigates another, inner speech, an activity of interpretation in the very place, at the heart of transmission, where information engineering insists that there is neither medium nor content but pure flow.

To instigate interpretation, with all its commonness, sociality, misunderstanding and argument, its democracy, at the site of the Black Box as Clarke has done is to gum up the works, not as sabotage, but to discover whether, as the viewer opens the box, and the monsters at their breathtaking velocities fly out to plague us, there may be some Pandora's jewel resting at the bottom, the slow gemstone of hope.

Sean Cubitt is a Reader in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the
Liverpool John Moores University



Thanks to the Department of Art and Fashion, University of Central Lancashire, Preston for support in publishing this catalogue

Thanks to Sean Cubitt for his catalogue essay and critical practice

Thanks to Stephen Snoddy and Cornerhouse for their help and support

Thanks more than ever to Angie, Joe and Tom

Pete Clarke September 1996