Creation Story: Stephen Clark, painter 

What his work looks like: Clark executes his abstract paintings in oil enamel, oil stick and graphite on wood panels layered with plaster. At first glance they look deceptively simple with their playful childlike images, forms, symbols and shapes scattered across mostly white grounds. Flashes of red slash across many works, and numbers and words often appear. As one moves down the gallery wall the paintings seem to play off one another as forms and symbols repeat and are used in different combinations.

"I want these [paintings] to come off as being read immediately," he says. "The result doesn't reflect a lot of angst; it reflects a playful clarity. To do that takes a long, long time. I am constantly distilling these things down, adding and subtracting. A lot of it is covering my tracks."

What the symbols in his paintings mean: "I have my own little alphabet going," he explains. "I use about 20 symbols I call an alphabet." Pulleys, wheels, half-circles and chains of X-forms are some of the images that form his vocabulary.

Clark is inspired by the Hebrew alphabet, in which each letter also represents a symbol. "With each word that's spelled there's a story that's unfolding," he says. Likewise, Clark is trying to tell stories with his work. What those stories mean is up to the viewer's interpretation of the mood — or "charge" — they create. "There is a charge that comes out of these [symbols] intermingling," Clark says. "When I see that charge, it becomes like a seed to me."

Clark compares his paintings to equations in which all of the components are elements of the formula. "All the pieces in that show are my playful poetic attempts, inquiries into the creative process," he says. "They address the dialogue between energy and matter, thought and form. …The language elements I've chosen to incorporate — shapes, symbols, lines, marks, color, etc. — represent the chess pieces in the creation game. …"

What influences him: Clark says he is influenced by the writing, prose and drawings of 17th-century alchemists; Dada; the structure and compositions of Russian Supremism and Constructivism; the simplified language of Bauhaus artists Mondrian, Kandinsky and Klee; and the fluid, primitive gestures of Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly.

On meeting one of his influences: Clark has long been a fan of Twombly's work, of his playfulness combined with references to history and myth. When Clark lived in New York he became friends with Twombly's niece, and when he moved to Richmond, learned that Twombly had moved to Lexington, Va. "I wrote a letter to him and he wrote back inviting me to visit," Clark recalls. "So a few weeks later, I filled up my car with paintings and drove down to Lexington."

Though Twombly was surprised to see him, Clark says he was warmly received "We set my paintings out on a long, enclosed brick patio. He would get up close to my paintings, scan the surfaces and touch them. I was really charged by that. It was a real treat for me." Since then, he has been back twice for visits, and Twombly owns some of his work. — Jessica Ronky Haddad


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