In the traditional sense, “plastic” has less to do with substance and more to do with character. That character, one of movement and malleability, is rarely observed in consumer plastics, which have already undergone extruding, molding, or casting by the time they reach the market. The noun feels like a broken promise; the thing’s essence long since depleted. How tragic to hold a material that has already outlived its name!
New YorkHauser & Wirth
September 10 – October 26, 2019
For the past half-century or so, Ed Clark has been making plastic paintings that live up to the name. Acrylic, that oft-derided medium, serves a clear and tangible purpose in Clark’s work. While oil paint is praised for its sensuous qualities and slow drying time, acrylic is quickly dismissed as inferior, as if ease of use must necessarily lead to poor results. Look at these canvases, though, and imagine a more appropriate medium to capture painting’s action. Where oil bleeds and infiltrates, acrylic floats and freezes so as to present a pure picture of its liquidity.
In the sixties and seventies, Clark pioneered both the shaped canvas and the push-broom-as-paintbrush, resulting in painting-objects of great lateral speed. But here, gesture reigns over composition. The 15 works on view, all made in this millennium, show Clark’s brushstrokes at their most sparse and decisive.
Clark subjects his paint to a number of actions: it is poured and splattered, it slips and spreads, it pools and crackles. Most often, it is pushed and pulled across the surface. Barring custom-built squeegees, painters make no wider marks than these. With a broom in place of a brush, Clark sweeps across the canvas in broad strokes. At this scale, a mark is not made but corralled; it transcends the whims and follies of the painter’s wrist, arm, shoulder.
Acrylic is not elegant like oil, not as ethereal. In great quantities, it acts as a paste, something to be wrangled with. In a work from 2014, swaths of orange and gray congeal into a muddy nucleus punctuated by fissures of blue. In the uneven drying process, a skin formed over the acrylic and cracked, like a loaf splitting in the oven to reveal its pristine crumb.
Clark’s paintings are filled with these moments of tectonic intrigue. Bubbles rise to the surface and then fossilize. Spills of different viscosities meet and wage watery turf wars. Fields of color retreat across the picture plane, dragging debris with them: semi-hardened paint scraps, loose staples, skeins of neighboring color. This is plastic caught in the act, dragged into submission and fighting back.
A corner of a canvas has unraveled in the studio and caught the end of a brushstroke. Now hardened, it can no longer be folded neatly into place behind the stretcher; it lolls out of the frame like a lame tongue. That glimpse of green and red commands the entire swirling picture. A 2013 painting presents the sun as a thick orange circle, plopped onto the canvas straight from the bucket, ridges and all. In another, a smudge of pink rises out of the quagmire, swift to escape its earthy cousins. In yet another, the horizon is a blur, a streak of white speeding through space.
There is no alchemy here. Clark’s gestures contend with the equivalent forces of his medium. On rare occasions, they harmonize in a single stroke of fluid joy. But painting is about opposition, and these paintings lay bare the struggle of the act itself. To be plastic is to respond to environmental forces, to dance in the spaces between forms. Look at these paintings—their grooves and spills, their successes and compromises—and read a language that is vulnerable, open, strong.