Brian Clarke: The Art of Light
A lifelong exponent of the integration of art and architecture, and celebrated for his paintings, sculpture, ceramics, mosaic, and his radical innovation in stained glass, Brian Clarke has been a major figure in contemporary art for the last four decades.
Distilling the euphoria of form and colour, Clarke’s oeuvre is testament to the fact that ‘artistic practice has the ability to change the shape of things, has the ability to transform the world.’ This film charts his life and career from a modest upbringing in Oldham, through cutting-edge Punk years, to producing the single largest pieces of stained glass in the world at this time.
With contributions from Paul Greenhalgh, Director, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts; photographer Ralph Gibson; Dame Zaha Hadid; Sir Peter Cook; and June Osborne, DL, Bishop of Llandaff.
[Ralph Gibson, Photographer]
His work is not necessarily only two-dimensional. It’s glass, but it’s refracting light, and reflecting light, and transmitting light.
[June Osborne, DL, Bishop of Llandaff]
It’s about a huge sense of beauty. I think it’s an engagement with light… It’s an engagement with the way faith operates.
[Paul Greenhalgh, Director, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts]
When you stand in front of Brian’s stained glass, there’s a feeling of euphoria, you’re lifted and carried into another world. We can also be carried into tragedy and melancholia. So, it’s as though it’s art as a process whereby human emotion is captured forever in material. Stained glass is widely misunderstood and categorised as being fundamentally a particular kind of religious art. It always was an art which was in cathedrals and churches, but it was elsewhere as well, and I think it really serves when we look at Brian Clarke’s stained glass to show us that, in actual fact, what his art is about, and what stained glass is about, is a much wider idea of spirituality. Through the decades, Brian has worked not just in churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship, but also in airports, arcades, and in private houses. Stained glass, really, is a ubiquitous medium. It can be anywhere, but it does retain this, for me, this feeling of a deeper spirituality. It’s about the intangibility of coloured light, and what that does to people when they look at it. One thing I think is really interesting in Brian Clarke’s work is the ability he’s got to deal with scale. He can move from epic size works, and he has made the single largest pieces of stained glass in the world, at this stage, but at the same time there’s a sense of jewelry-like activity in his work as well, attention to detail, and minutiae. His work goes through the scale range really very dramatically, from the size of architecture down to the size of a wedding ring.
[Dame Zaha Hadid, Architect]
Now this is a Brian ring. He did it for my birthday. It’s like a kind of freehand sketch made in gold, like a gold sketch. I draw very straight, smooth lines, and his are slightly crinkled. It’s almost like drawing in space. And I haven’t seen the recent stuff, but I think it should be really done like that. As if you’re drawing, not on a canvas, but in a volume.
[Brian Clarke, Architectural Artist]
Line is a kind of vehicle that carries a multiplicity of ideas, or feelings, or whatever emotions. Drawing, for me, line, for me, is a kind of fundamental armature on which everything else kind of hangs, really. And sometimes one draws just because it’s what one wants to do, and it’s the only thing that is sufficient to the moment, and at other times it’s a route to another experience.
[Sir Peter Cook, Architect]
I think Brian is not the normal artist. He can really, really communicate through his hand, through the pencil, through making spaces, because I think what he does with his stained glass pieces is really to create space. I’ve had him in the distant past as a critic on architectural juries. He seems to know more about architecture than most of the architects sitting in the same room. You’re now working in ceramic. You work in dividing spaces; you work in translucent materials of every kind and of course he’s a painter with extraordinary vigor. His studio is just gobsmacking. You go in there and it’s like, in the best sense, a factory, but it’s like a sort of factory that’s almost like a sweet factory, there’s simply amazing things coming out of every kind. I’m very envious of his amazing productivity, but he’s been like that for the 40 years that I’ve known him.
Within five minutes of meeting Brian Clarke, he will have told you four times that he comes from Oldham. And for me this is a very, very important part of his outlook on life. He’s obviously incredibly interested and intensely proud of his northern heritage in Oldham. Quite a lot of his work has to do with memory and looking back at his childhood. He came across stained glass as a young lad. By the time he was 20, he was experimenting, alongside his painting, with the idea of stained glass. I find his response to the punk movement interesting. In the 70s, punk was not so much a general anarchistic revolution. It really was a move away from the previous generation of cultural practice. The false utopias and optimisms of the world that we were all given. Punk was really very much about a generation of people kicking things into touch.
I think that you can’t afford to compromise. If you’re making a statement artistically, then when you’re making that statement, as far as you’re concerned it’s an absolute. And any variation or dilution or subtraction from an absolute, makes it less than absolute, and therefore makes it untrue and therefore by definition, a lie. And I am not a perpetrator of visual lies.
That oppositionalism can be found in his work as something confrontational in quite a complicated way. Not overt, but nevertheless always present. His work deals with contrariness and contradiction, as well as lyricism, and the euphoria of form and colour.
I met Brian Clarke so long ago that it’s remarkable that I can remember. It must have been ’74 – ’75. He was in his early twenties already working both as a painter and in stained glass. And they’ve always been parallel, cross-germinating in his work. And because of the nature of stained glass and the scale involved, he developed in another direction than from painting. Painting remains relatively small compared to some of his larger works. He gets an awful lot of ideas for his stained glass from his painting. I realised that he instantly challenged various preconceived notions that were rooted in the history of stained glass. The narrative – that’s huge. And then Brian starts to extend this with his constructivist dialogue, which then included what I believe was his quantum leap… I believe when he challenged the leading it became a sculptural component of the infrastructure. It wasn’t supporting the content; it was included as content. Sometimes, I look at the image of the stained glass; and sometimes I look at how it’s supported because this is an architectural concern. And, as we know, he was completely fluent in all architectural thought. When he started examining the leading, both either including it or excluding it, or using it to make shapes, articulate shapes, calligraphic shapes, just because it was a medium in and of itself on top of the glass, not necessarily the support. I think that same lead started to bleed into his mixture of the colour of the glass. He’s also made an enormous contribution to the palette. He’s been able to do things that were undreamt of before. I was recently in his studio and it’s a jaw-dropping experience to see the dimensions that he embraces.
[June Osborne, DL]
Brian is just an extraordinary, vivid person to engage with. There are always people wanting to interact with his creative vitality. I think he’s a deeply spiritual person. His spirituality may come through beauty and form, style. He has a very strong instinct for that.
[Sister Salomé, Abbaye de la Fille-Dieu, Romont]
The author, Brian Clarke, I heard that he refers to himself as agnostic and I ask myself, how can a man, well, I don’t know, but he must have a profoundly religious spirit. I simply don’t understand how he managed to convey such a message and, I must say, it touches me deeply. It’s sympathetic on every level. I don’t just mean artistically but also as a Christian message.
I do believe that art has a much greater function to fulfil than the decoration of bourgeois drawing rooms. And that that function exists in public buildings; of that, there is no doubt. And equally there’s no doubt that that is the future.
The totality of Brian Clarke’s work corresponds with a number of the very grand masters of modernism. In the sense of an underlying belief in the ability of art to transform consciousness. The idea that beauty in itself can be ‘transformatory’. Artistic practice has the ability to change the shape of things, has the ability to transform the world.
With thanks to
Arts University Bournemouth
Sir Peter Cook
Foster + Partners / Nigel Young
June Osborne, DL
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Sister Salomé Wetli
The Estate of Zaha Hadid
“The Light Pours Out Of Me”
Performed by Magazine
Written by Howard Devoto / John McGeoch / Pete Shelley
Published by Mute Song Limited / Domino Music Publishing / Universal Music Publishing
Courtesy of EMI
Under licence from Universal Music Operations Limited
FMA (CC BY-NC 3.0)
FMA (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
“Funk and Flash”
Blue Dot Sessions
FMA (CC BY-NC 4.0)
“Sweet and Sour San’ich”
FMA (CC BY-NC 3.0)
‘Brian Clarke’, official website
‘Brian Clarke: The Art of Light’, Museum of Arts and Design, New York
‘Brian Clarke: On Line’, Arts University Bournemouth
Richard Holledge, ‘The Luminous Stained Glass of Brian Clarke’, Financial Times, 10 August 2018
Caroline Roux, ‘How Artist Brian Clarke Is Pushing the Medium of Stained Glass’, Galerie Magazine, 10 March 2020
Sr. Salomé Wetli on Brian Clarke’s commission for Abbaye de la Fille-Dieu, Romont:
‘The artist, Brian Clarke, gave us no interpretation or of his glass windows during his visits to the monastery. He answered our questions: ‘Everything is in the work’ (1996). That Brian Clarke called himself an ‘agnostic’ surprised me and made me thoughtful. The biblical depth and the theological power of expression of this work of art is, for an attentive eye, like a gift. It shows up in the form of an emotional light and the play of colours is truly a contemplative-spiritual event that touches the visitor’s heart. In my opinion, the intensity of expression of this kind of art can only succeed and take shape in an artist’s soul that has a spiritual relationship with the ‘supernatural dimension’, if perhaps unconsciously.
We as a Christian monastic community in the Catholic Cistercian monastery call this dimension ‘The Creator of the Universe’, the ‘LIGHT of the world’ and its saving beauty and redemption through Jesus Christ.
With his glass windows, Brian Clarke has shaped our church with a forward-looking, prophetic mission. We are very grateful to Brian Clarke for this and remain very attached to him.’
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