There can’t be many people who know that the world’s foremost stained glass artist is from Oldham.

Like fellow Oldhamer, the composer William Walton, Brian Clarke has made a considerable mark on the world through his art, as his impressive array of commissions testify. They include (fittingly) the stained glass roof of Oldham’s Spindles Shopping Centre; choir windows for Linköping Cathedral in Sweden; a stained glass wall for the Al-Faisaliah Complex in Riyadh; a stained glass screen for the Château d’Orain in  France; mosaic and stained glass windows and walls for The Grace Building, New York, and stained glass panels for the skylight of the Victoria Quarter in Leeds.

His international reputation makes Brian Clarke the Sir Norman Foster of stained glass and architectural art (with whom he has collaborated), yet he has never forgotten his roots and readily acknowledges the influence of Oldham on his work. “My love of architecture began with my love of cotton mills,” he has said. “I am built of red bricks and covered in black smog.”

Clarke is the enfant terrible of stained glass, highly respectful of its ecclesiastical heritage while practising his own, highly individual code, and is not averse to parting with clients who try to dictate the creative process. His work has a palpable punk feel to it, often incorporating a simple, hand-drawn motif against a plain or geometric background flushed with bright colour. He draws everyday, a discipline formed during his art school days, and views drawing and painting as integral to the make-up of the stained glass artist. “Who I really am is in the drawings,” he has said. “I see the world through drawing.”

Brian Clarke Born Oldham 1953 © Matthew J Graham, 2013Brian Clarke: Born Oldham 1953 at Gallery Oldham celebrates this less conspicuous part of his oeuvre. The exhibition is the successor to his acclaimed 2011 exhibition of drawings held at the Saatchi Gallery in London and provides an intimate link to his stained glass work. The drawings are based on six eclectic motifs. Meditations on the Nature of Order, the most colourful series, sees Clarke setting grids over a base layer upon which a drawing of a skull, church window or paint tubes is superimposed. The works are striking; a combination of colour, architectural formality and drawing creating a lack of uniformity in the mind, as if Clarke is acknowledging the influence of all three on his work and art as a whole by positing their coexistence as normality.

By contrast, Spitfires presents a more monochrome series of drawings, pitching the humming silhouettes of Spitfires against white paper representing cloud, or ghostly outlines on black paper. In Six Spitfires, the outlines break off in trailing, anarchical lines, disestablishing any neatness, as if drawing the Spitfires in their entirety would be too conventional, not as interesting to the artist’s eye. And why Spitfires? Perhaps we should say ‘why not?’, for they are as beautiful as a machine can be, and a British icon to boot.

Lancashire Cotton Mills continues in the same vein. Here, Clarke silhouettes mills instead, the white paper representing a once smokier, industrial Oldham, perhaps. An intriguing, rectangular crimson strip graces many of the drawings, as in Lancashire Cotton Mills 6 – the singling-out of one of Clarke’s formative red bricks, maybe, crimson adding the lustre of importance.

The final drawings of the exhibition see Clarke indulging in comparatively more frivolous subjects. Paint Tube and Palette is a homage to the inspiring materials of painting, a mix of colourful paint tubes and the sketch outline of a palette, drawn, like so many of these works, on a large piece of classic Velin Arches paper, while Silver Caramels frames the simple, shimmering beauty of caramel sweet wrappers, loosely connected with pencil lines.

Brian Clarke was born in a Northern mill town and like so many Northern English artists – Lowry being the prime example – this has left a mark of moody abstraction and an antagonism of influences on his work that is both refined and highly original.

Review by Matthew Graham


What: Brian Clarke: Born Oldham 1953

Where: Gallery Oldham, Oldham

When: until September 14, 2013

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