Pete Clarke, Constructed Views (Liverpool, England).
Art Gallery 25th February -24th March 1984.
Artists and the practice of art making are marginalised in our society; art is no longer a concern of most people. Pete Clarke is an example of an artist who cares about bringing art back to the people and who recognises the potential of art as a powerful social force. From the Gallery's point of view, as a public institution, we are finding new ways of establishing a direct and meaningful relationship between the living artist and the public-to establish a participatory culture. In promoting the work of Pete Clarke, an artist who deals with issues that are direct in determining the quality of peoples' lives, we hope to lay the foundations for a positive interaction between the public and the artist's work.
Art is severely under threat in the 1980's. To counter the concept of art as a peripheral and elitist activity, we hope this exhibition will go some way to realizing the true potential of art, as a positive force in society.
We are especially indebted to Peter Clarke who has involved himself
in all aspects of organisation of this exhibition and for his commitment
to the Gallery and its policies. Also, thanks are due to North West
Arts for their financial support and to David Campbell for his contribution
to the catalogue and to the argument of the show.
I was born in Burnley, Lancashire in 1951 but lived most of my school life in Nelson, a small cotton-industry town in the Pennines. After leaving secondary school I went to the local Foundation art course at Burnley Municipal College. This "Traditional" drawing based course has been an important influence on subsequent work. Afterwards I was a student at Bristol Poly and Chelsea College of Art.
In 1978 I was lucky to get a job in Liverpool, a city full of contradictions. The history of this once thriving port and mercantile centre reflects strongly on daily experience and has been a major influence on the subject of my work. The city is bearing the brunt of the recession, ravaged by unemployment, redundancy and poor housing conditions: and can be seen as a symbol of political decline. It is important that the work has social and political relevance and attempts to describe the experience common to many people living in an industrial centre, by asking simple questions which demand political solutions.
The making of art can be used to sort out ideas and thereby help understand
social problems. At Liverpool Artists' Workshop, a communal studio
with 14 members, we try to evolve different ways of using art by making
it more accessible. We open the workshop, have discussion and lecture
programmes and attempt in other ways to reach differing audiences
in the community. Recently, as an example of this, I worked with St.
Helen's Play Council designing and painting a play bus about the mining
history of the town with youth and unemployed groups. We feel that
these many functions of art have potential and that as a group we
can make a useful contribution.
Arriving in 1978 to take up a post in the Silkscreen department of Liverpool Polytechnic, Pete Clarke came to a city ravaged by long term unemployment. Since then, the economic strategy of the Conservative government has effectively amounted to a de-industrialisation of Merseyside, which has produced a state of accelerated dereliction that is all too visible. Just one example of this economic devastation can be indicated through the collapse of Liverpool's traditionally based industries of sugar importation and refining, sugar cane has been replaced by beet as the raw material for sugar production. Liverpool's cane based sugar industries have thus been made redundant, creating a chain of unemployment which is still in operation.
As an active member of the Labour party in an inner-city constituency, Pete Clarke responds to this situation politically through the workings of his local Labour party and in terms of an art practice. This exhibition serves to indicate the manner in which these two activities, amongst others, interconnect and it will provide a useful contribution to an analysis of the sort of problems this activity presents.
Having worked mainly in the area of silkscreen printing and drawing, the painting 'Liverpool 8' represents Clarke's first serious return to painting. A possible point of interest of the work may lie in Clarke's attempted production of a politicised art and as such may indicate the kind of questions Clarke perceives thus to involve and the procedures he set about employing to secure public understanding.
In terms of this intervention it is perhaps not so surprising that Clarke would draw upon those means of representation in which he had some familiarity. Having been trained in a fairly "traditional" realist approach, it was this practice which was brought to bear in 'Liverpool 8'. Its applicability may rest for Clarke in the way it attempts to construct looking, taking its historical cue from Cezanne, as a fluctuating dialectical process in which the sense of interconnection is articulated at the level of formal construction.
As is always the case, simultaneous with the question of how to paint is that of what to paint and for Clarke this problem was of attempting to produce work in which questions of political engagement are raised. The device he adopts is the use of metaphor. 'Liverpool 8' consists of a realist representation of the back window of Clarke's flat, and as such would be able to be accommodated within a fairly established genre of representation. There is no overt recognition of political significance, not until that is the painting is contextualised by the title. Before July 1981, 'Liverpool 8' had very little meaning for most of the country, although within Liverpool it did have particular connotations beyond that of a mere postal district. After the riots of July '81 this situation was altered: 'Liverpool 8' was given meanings repeatedly and hysterically; it seemed at times during that summer that the need for 'Liverpool 8' to have meaning had reached almost obsessional proportions in the mass media. Often based on political positions, 'Liverpool 8' was constructed to mean anything from the confirmation of racist assertions of open conflict, to the long awaited collapse of Capitalism as predicted by certain groups on the left. Yet whatever meanings were produced and employed, one thing is certain and that is that 'Liverpool 8' is a sensitised term which sparks off a chain of political readings.
The construction of meanings operating beyond the limited control of the painting, produce definite procedures for seeing the work. The bars on the window occupy an important position around which readings of the painting can be made. Clarke appears conscious of this process and utilises it through the degree to which the barred window can be read metaphorically in terms of containment, exclusion, keeping people/things in or out. That which has been termed the political concern, is thus brought into issue through the metaphor and the title. What Clarke is attempting to pose is the question of political engagement; does one become involved in the political world 'out there' beyond the bars or does one retreat behind them so that the world remains literally, a view, out of the window.
paintings 'Liverpool 8' and the 'New Socialist' are interesting because
they indicate the conditions which are necessary for metaphoric reference
to work, namely the degree to which the metaphor has public accessibility.
In the 'New Socialist' again the question of engagement/apathy is
a motivating factor in the production of the painting. Intended specifically
to be raised through the metaphor of the chair as activity/passivity,
the work indicates how particular meanings intended by the artist
may escape public reading due to obscurity of the metaphoric reference.
Asked about the function of art, Henri Matisse replied on the lines
that a work of art should be like a comfortable armchair in which
a tired business man could relax. The painting uses the concept of
the chair as a metaphor for art's function, and Clarke, by his usage,
signals a challenge to that definition. His is not the comfortable
chair of Matisse, to indulge passivity, but rather it implies a more
functional, almost educational role.
The value of collage is greatly employed in the Triptych painting, functioning as a commentary to the painted areas. Again the use of metaphor is taken up in these works by adopting a restricted dark tonal paint range to represent dereliction in the form of housing estates and factories. Clarke deliberately attempts to make use of the established public tendency of associating particular colour ranges with psychological states. The derelict architecture is thus painted in a dark tonal range, attempting to promote a reading which draws off these colour associations in terms of depression and gloom and which by extension are hoped to represent the social condition of despair.
selecting out of these points of contact is attempted by Clarke, still
operating within the colour/psychological state equation. Arranged
as the counter term in the colour metaphor, he selects representations
which possess colour literally, thus playing off the associations
that are brought in relation to the dark gloomy areas. Against the
stark, monumentally constructed areas of architectural landscapes
which produce spatially, and, by implication, socially oppressive
environments, he sites points of resistance. The sites he constructs
as points of hope within the landscape of decay are those activities
which offer some form of potential future. Labour party buildings,
socialist organisations, Co-op halls, political posters, ironic and
humorous graffitti are all collaged in the work in the form of colour
photographs. Opposed to the oppressive generality of the painted and
black and white photographed areas, the colour photos of Clarke's
perceived points of resistance are intimate in scale. But beyond this,
the sense of intimacy is enhanced by the actual means of representation
used. The small colour photos have associations of personal use, snapshots
as a source of pleasure. Certainly they do not have the aspect of
official documentation which the stark black and white photographs
seem to possess
The selection of the points of resistance are of course determined by Clarke's political consciousness, and as such are constrained by particular ideological boundaries. He does not attempt to claim that it is an unmediated duplication of reality but sets about the organisation of the paintings in terms by which particular relationships are set up between the various elements. This procedure of implying relationships is also articulated through the painted areas which adopt a cubist derived technique of multiple viewpoints to produce jarred spatial planes, emphasising interconnection.
In the more recent works the selection of elements are less rigorously limited to overtly socialist themes. Instead, some of the complexity of capitalist ideology is articulated through the use of irony to set about the construction of meaning. For instance, what does it mean to take up representations of Queen Victoria in 1984? It is not merely a matter of aesthetics, for the Capitalist's themselves show us that the contestation of this kind of representation is important at the level of ideological and political struggles. It actually matters how things are represented, it is important to contest the practices in which representations are constructed and by which meanings are fixed. This concern with representation brings in questions of who it is that actually gets represented, by what means, and for whom. It does not simply involve representation in terms of statues of the ruling class, although the question of whose history is being recorded is posed by analysis of these forms. The activity of intervention should be carried out across the whole of the social formation in which representations are produced, from the media coverage of an industrial dispute to the meanings constructed for Victorian values by a Conservative Prime Minister in the throes of dismantling the Welfare State.
It is the problem for Clarke and all others involved in practices of representation, to what extent can they intervene in the codes and procedures widely in use for the production of meaning? This does not mean the simple adoption of these procedures, for this would merely duplicate the dominant ideology, rather it consists in contesting the means by which meanings and truths are organised.
The work in this exhibition indicates the possible procedures of achieving
this, adopted by one particular artist, and as such demonstrates the
problems that are posed, but also the rewards that this attempt may
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