Garden Rant
Gardening While Intoxicated
Buffalo Spree


A year ago, Licata became the fourth member of a group of garden bloggers with an attitude. Garden Rant one of my favorites: A blend of gossip, news, crusade and, yes, raw rant, it blows the cobwebs out of gardening's mustier corners.

–Adrian Higgins,
Washington Post

... co-curators Elizabeth Licata and Amy Cappellazzo have magnificently transcended the limitations of what is, at bottom, a show of books. ...Preciousness—the bane of such exhibitions—is nowhere in evidence.

–Richard Huntington,
Buffalo News

"Garden Walk Buffalo: A Celebration of Urban Gardens," is a tour guide into dozens of gardens during the annual event held the last full weekend in July. It's knowingly written by Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata, and packed with gorgeous photographs...

–Mark Sommer,
Buffalo News

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Art Writer

"Charles Clough's Dreampix,"

Charles Clough half-jokingly refers to his work as "one's po-mo-ab-ex-post-imp-fauvish dreampix," a label which betrays his rueful awareness of painting's current situation, as well as his sturdy confidence in its possibilities. With one foot planted solidly--and lovingly--in the Modernist tradition, Clough has been exploring additional strategies of mechanical simulation and art-historical referencing, producing an exhilarating body of work that questions as well as compels. A multi-venue survey of his career up to the present took place on his Western New York home territory last Fall: Buffalo's Burchfield Center and Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center exhibited early work and 20 years' worth of drawings, while the State University of New York at Fredonia showed paintings from the last five years, and the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University reprised the Brooklyn Museum-commissioned Three Paintings for One Wall. The exhibitions were held concurrently, each peering into a different time capsule of Clough's working methods and concerns.

During a brief period in the early 80s, the artist flirted with literal-minded appropriation, smearing swipes of paint over photographic reproductions of canonical works in an equally canonical high Abstract Expressionist manner, then reproducing the result. After this, he would smear more paint, and take more photographs, repeating the process until he had created a dense, multi-referential surface. The Resolution of Sparky (1982-1984), a project which found its final expression as a large mural for Buffalo's subway system, is a typical example from this process-obsessive period. Clough eventually discarded his photo-smear-photo technique, which had gotten him a lot of attention, feeling too entangled in the irony of the conceit. More recently, the artist has been addressing himself to the problems of abstract painting with traditional materials, refusing, like many other painters at the moment,to give up on the genre's possibilities. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Clough stops short of validating abstraction as an emotional outlet for poetic catharsis.

In Clough's current work, the middleman of literal appropriation is replaced by other, more subtle mediators. Along with enactments of landscape illusions and drifting cloud-like patterns, the artist is now laying down orbs of pigment in the vorticular patterns of exploding stars, a reminder that in these days of satellites and electron microscopes, it is harder than ever to call any painting non-representational.

A mechanical working method and tongue-in-cheek titling--one as central element and the other as peripheral nuance-- work together to propel Clough's working philosophy. Since the mid-80s, he has been using something he calls the "big finger" to apply paint, a crude mechanism consisting of a wooden pole with a round pad at the end. This device provides large, somewhat uniform blots and swipes of paint, and, more importantly, distances the artist from his productions. Clough refers to this stance as "continuing to mine the hand/machine dialectic." Significant, too, are Clough's title choices; ever since he started making art objects, his titles have been consistently humorous and occasionally ribald, providing a series of sassy one-liners that, true to the artist's constant affinity for paradox, pay back-handed homage to the discordant ironies of postmodernity. Often Clough follows the tradition of simply dating the paintings instead of naming them, but equally as often he comes up with titles like Chagrinulator, Holus Bolus, Colliculus, Parabulia, and Wang Meng, thus calling forth images of B-movie monsters, fully aware of their campy impotence.

These paintings should be scary. The viewer is presented with rotund, swirling cumuli--summoning up Baroque sensibilities--or lush, illusionist vistas that seem to echo 19th century notions of the sublime. But the initial confrontation ends up unresolved, as the artist charts a treacherous course between emotional sinkholes and referential terra firma. Three paintings from 1985, The Governor, Doubloon, and Oysters, define Clough's version of integrated appropriation. They were made as a special project for the Brooklyn Museum, and refer to several greatest hits from the Museum's 19th century American painting collection, including Albert Bierstadt's A Storm in the Rocky Mountains--Mt. Rosalie(1866), Benjamin West's The Angel of the Lord Announcing the Resurrection, and several unspecified works by Childe Hassam and John Henry Twachtman. Clough uses these paintings as more than inspiration. With the help of the big finger, he deliberately approximates their compositional schemes on a huge scale (The Governor is 22 by 14 feet) in order to proffer the same enveloping monumentality. The three works (called Three Paintings for One Wall during their Brooklyn installation) are both intimidating and hilarious in their simulated grandeur, and should rank among late 20th century art's final words on the visionary landscape.

Other works are less grounded in historical familiarity, combining the horizontal movement of landscape with random gestural swirls. One of the most successful of these is Fan the Sickle(1990), a painting which slaps two rainbow-like segments over a cluster of red apocalyptic swirls. Clough makes this bombastic combination work, subduing high-key explosions with cool sweeps of blue and green, and allowing lurking darkness to drift in from the right. The painting's vigor remains unabated, in spite of the artist's use of tried and true modernist solutions in reconciling its various elements. Clough fully realizes that contemporary context requires him to be aware of his duel role as both the hero and the fool. When the hero begins to take himself too seriously, the fool steps in, and speaks directly to the audience, reminding us of the situation's theatrical dynamics.

Sometimes the jester takes center stage from the beginning, as in Social Contract's (1990) absurdly phallic fireworks. But here, the backlit exuberance of the work's single, commanding figure reminds us with, with typical Cloughian insouciance, of art's heroic ability to transform humdrum bodily mechanics. The artist's gift for investing familiar, if not debased, gestural aesthetics with fresh credibility is profoundly rooted in his respect for the psychological power of the cliché. Social Contract is a double-edged power play, confident in its slapstick critique of gender-specific painting traditions, as well as its energetic re-take on a seemingly indestructible signifier.

Throughout most of this work, Clough's gestures hover in a circular holding pattern on the canvas. Suggesting inner and outer space rather than earthbound vistas, they maintain the artist's characteristic balance of exaggerated expression and mechanical distance. Bulbous shapes cavort in a centrifugal whirl, and the pictorial space becomes a dizzying funhouse. In the most recent work, Clough's usual references to his Abstract Expressionist forefathers become references to their imaginary prodigal sons, in dire need of preventative therapy. Works like Grozny and Chagrinulator (both 1990, both 6 by 8 feet) retain size in order to intimidate rather than invite the viewer, and often grotesque body orifices--ears, eyes, mouths--seem to open up, revealing an ever receding interior of swirling paint. The momentum generated by Grozny's leering visage is that of a mechanistic frenzy, one which maintains order through the familiarity of its stylistic legacy. That this legacy is now more like somebody's twisted version of Abstract Expressionist wallpaper than an earnest approximation of established techniques reminds us that we're dealing with a very smart painter, who's had to reinvent a few wheels in his time. Through burlesquing "Action" techniques into maniacal painterly screeds, Clough's gestural maelstroms use their dual heritage--the power of appropriation and the immediacy of color and movement--to possess the present. In a statement on his "vortex paintings," Clough says that they "paradoxically hold the genres of the portrait, the still life and the landscape on a single ground; portrait as cartoon caricature, still life as floral display, and landscape as celestial bodies in cosmic space or sub-atomic scenarios...a ratio of infinite variations on a predictable theme." Looking at his paintings, one realizes that the lack of texture on their slick enamel surface opens the door for this seemingly limitless manipulation of imagery. It also puts Clough one step further away from his New York School progenitors. With these works, Clough is also recreating his own history, improving on his early transformations of the reproduced image during his days as an emerging artist. The irony of it all is that Clough now finds himself in competition with a juggernaut of mass media-obsessive art which he himself helped to start in motion during his early Hallwalls days.

Clough co-founded Hallwalls with Robert Longo in 1975. During his years there, the artist created installations for the gallery space using painted or photographed eyes as surveillance tools, which gazed back at the viewer in an reflexive double-bind. These installations were often mechanically driven, depending on pulleys and rotary devices to move the imagery. 20 years later, Clough ups the ante on aggressive dynamics using the current version of his on-going fascination with funky machinery--the unseen big finger. Now the machinery has been incorporated into the canvas, effectively doubling its evocative grasp on the viewer's sensibilities.

Notebook drawings dating from the early 70's to the present, which were part of last Fall's Hallwalls exhibition, document the artist's lifelong concern with the value of evocative imagery, be it abstract or representational. Sketches of body parts as well as variations based on his own fingerprints fill Clough's notebook in the early years, while, lately, an interest in the appearance and disappearance of facial characteristics in amorphous shapes has come to fruition in the current vortex paintings. Throughout the notebooks, diagrams of various apparatus for moving paint around recur, as well as studies from Modernist masterworks such as Cezanne's The Great Bathers (1898-1905), and Gorky's The Liver is the Cock's Comb (1944).

Many items from this list would appear in the notebooks of almost any serious artist, but it is the combination of all these concerns that provides the best insight into Clough's current agenda. A thoroughly integrated simulationist zeitgeist finds its expression through the use of mechanical means and emphatic stylistic quotations, while an equally entrenched commitment to the power of imagistic loose cannons balances and empowers the appropriation. Clough's methods might be filtered through Baudrillard, but the results ultimately owe their power to an ever-shifting undercurrent of psychological cues, intermittently taken from Freud, Jung, or even Julia Kristeva. The artist knows quite well that simply borrowing from the repertoire leads to a busy canvas full of empty debts. He has made a substantial investment of his own in what has become a going concern for many artists: the creation of an abstract vocabulary for the 21st century.

Art in America, July, 1992

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