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Student Review: Just Paper and Glue

Peter Clarke at STEVENSON in Cape Town

By Olga Speakes
05 September - 12 October. 0 Comment(s)
Theme: For Bra Kippie

Peter Clarke
Theme: For Bra Kippie, Completed in Sept 1998. Artist's book, mixed media on paper, cloth and leather binding 18.5 x 28 x 1.5cm.

This review was selected for publication from the Art Criticism course for Honours students at UCT's Michaelis School of Fine Art

The title of the exhibition currently on view at the Stevenson Gallery, taken from the artist’s personal and very self-depreciating statement about the works on display, is misleading on many levels. Working from his house in Ocean View, Peter Clarke has been creating concertina books using a collage technique that combines found objects and scraps of printed materials with watercolour and other media. Spread across discreet shelves that run along the walls of the semi-dark gallery space, they sparkle like bright multi-coloured jewels. The bigger ones zigzag their way along the dark walls, inviting us to look but not touch thanks to the clever positioning of the shelves close to eye level. The smaller ones explode out of their precious little boxes in streams of colour inside a glass table vitrine that teases us with its open sides while keeping them safe from the crudeness of possible touch.

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The presence of these beautifully and thoughtfully made artist’s books in this gallery leaves one somewhat bewildered, particularly if one reads the handout about the exhibition where the purpose of this artistic project is described, in the words of Peter Clarke himself, as a way to share these fun and accessible objects with friends and strangers through personal and intimate encounters. They are begging to be held, handled, pulled out and folded back, played with and marveled at. This sense of bewilderment increases even further once we enter the two smaller rooms of the gallery where we see the artist’s personal calendars. They are also beautifully and decoratively made, but still bear unmistakable traces of utility with certain dates and day names painted over as if to suit a different year from the one for which they were originally made. These are displayed in professional glass box frames, which give them an air of museum objects, personal items immortalized by their association with their creator and user. There is a lack of clarity as to why these calendars are here: are they mundane personal items illustrating Clarke’s creativity as applied to his domestic setting, or are they valuable pieces of art unearthed by the curators and finally given their rightful place in this high-end art gallery? The original intention of the artist seems clear (and articulated in the handout). The intention of the gallery is also clear. The fact that they do not cohere creates a somewhat awkward feeling of mismatch and misrepresentation.    

The display mode and politics of exhibiting these artist’s books in the context of a commercial gallery aside, a closer look at these colourful and witty objects is very rewarding. Relatively small in scale, like most of his other works, they are the result of both the desire to re-use discarded or disposable objects and the constraints of cramped working conditions. The books combine both decorative and autobiographical elements and feature clever titles, like Seconds. Not for Sale to General Trade or Toss. Don’t Delay, which are ‘found objects’ themselves, appropriated from printed matter that lands, often uninvited, in one's postbox. The titles also seem to point us to the lighthearted and immaterial nature of these creations. With the exception of the book titled Theme: For Bra Kippie, which is distinct in its readability as a complete autobiographical and descriptive project, other books do not add up to a clear story despite including many personal elements like tickets from the artist’s journeys, mail addressed to him and items pointing to other realities of his every day life (local supermarket fliers, personal invitations, product labels). Text, witty and ironic at times, is used to interrupt and to punctuate the combinations of colours and pattern, giving these combinations an extra dimension, making them spill into the social reality from the aesthetic one.

The artist activates this connection between the social, the everyday and the aesthetic and the decorative through the language of collage. We can indeed trace some of the formal elements of the concertina books to Clarke’s awareness of the collages of Kurt Schwitters (1887- 1948) and Fluxus, as indicated in the handout provided by the gallery. There is an obvious similarity with Schwitters in terms of the materials used in the books. Schwitters also made extensive use of found objects, and particularly tickets, in his famous merz works, setting out to push the boundaries of the painting medium towards assemblage and to provide social critique both of the world he lived in and of the artistic establishment of which he was part. Outside of that formal similarity, it proved somewhat confusing to try and find the connection between merz collages by Schwitters and concertina books by Peter Clarke. Clarke’s expressed desire to limit the wastefulness of the times we live in by reusing discarded materials could be interpreted as a kind of social critique but, somehow, the overall purpose of his project seems to reside in a different sphere. His playful and witty use of text is more gentle than the bitterly ironic or even sarcastic use of found text by Schwitters, and does not add up to a social or political critique, even though the delicate and carefully thought through balance of the collage compositions is present in the works by both artists.

What may prove helpful in trying to understand the source of inspiration and the driving force behind these extremely decorative artist’s books is a beautifully designed catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. It contains an interview conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist on the occasion of the artist’s retrospective, ‘Peter Clarke: Wind Blowing on the Cape Flats’, at the Institute of International Visual Arts (INIVA) in London in January 2013. In the concluding episode of the conversation Clarke singles out The Snail collage (1953) by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) as an important inspiration for him, commenting on its colourful, joyous innocence, youthful energy and enthusiasm. The potential in Matisse’s collage to leave a lasting and luminous impression on all those who encounter it is an important consideration for Clarke. There is a sense that his concertina books project comes from a similarly unquenchable source of creative energy and is informed by similar ideas. The artist’s delight in colours and forms, his own joyful pleasure in their combinations, and the investment of his individuality and creativity render mundane elements into magical ones, and make the books perfect for their purpose of sharing and illuminating other people’s lives. Despite being removed into a gallery, these beautiful, witty objects still manage to draw the viewer in: they provide great aesthetic pleasure while offering little reminders of the artist and his world in the form of scraps, tickets, words and other bits and pieces that can intrigue and delight us at the same time.