A SIDE, A ROAD: THE RECENT WORK OF SHARON BARTEL CLEMENTS
BY DOMINIQUE NAHAS
Sharon Bartel Clements has the ability to depict the inference of spaces and places as well as the suggestion of movement and stillness in her paintings in ways that few people can. It becomes clear after viewing her work for long stretches that ephemerality and the fleetingness of time and events is at the center of her concerns. That being said it is hard to figure out what precisely is going “on” “under” or “in” her work. What is unmistakable, however, is the recognition that the artist deploys a wide register of shapes, marks and colors that sets off a chain reaction of opposing responses in the mind of the viewer. That might be because Bartel Clements, while an abstract artist, weaves naturalistic and representational cues in her work all the while honing the vision through a conceptual matrix that bears down not only on perceptual experience but seems to comment on the structure of perceptual and censorial experiences as well. I make this comment because the instinctual mark, referring to the a-logical in her work, is accompanied by the mark of the mechanistic, the rational. Bartel Clements sends off signals that her work is born out of an amalgamation of conceptual and intuitive drives.
Towards that end the artist has applied, fascinatingly, the tire-tread as a distinct mark-making device in her work alongside other marks. The tire mark imprint, repeated, allows the viewer to conjecture on the nature of movement, time, speed, and linearity. These marks, inferring a causal, structured, universe, are juxtaposed against marks which appear to be more expressionistic, spontaneous, idiosyncratic, and random. These latter marks are deliberate ones in a sense that they are controlled and orchestrated yet they are from another order of intentionality (let’s call that order that of directed impulse or that of purely libidinal drives) than the marks made from a tire pattern. In using “real tracks”, as the artist terms them in her work, as a metaphor for the journey, Bartel Clements brings into sharp relief the interplay between the real, imaginary, and symbolic orders that co-exist in her work as such.
The conflation of these differing orders of making, of poesies, in her work reaches a high pitch of nuance in, for example, the monochromatic distant memory series of drawings. Here, oil crayon contour marks made by wrist and finger movements onto the paper surfaces are conjoined with the nearly print-like registration of deep, regularized indentations and cavitations of the tread–mark patterns. This creates a motif within motifs. The distant memory works are partly automatic drawings; they create suggestive gestalt-like images that relate to Chinese landscape paintings of the Ming Period, in which powerful experimentation took place to produce a constantly evolving lexicon of marks corresponding to different terrains and atmospheric conditions in nature, as expressions of variable states of mind. Bartel Clements holds the eye and the mind of the viewer in the way she does by her nuanced control of marks that exist co-extensively on her picture-surfaces yet which contravene each other in a push-pull type of way. Red Wave #2 for example is a symbolist-laden artwork that infers cresting water, mist coalescing, and a mountain in the process of becoming manifest. The result is a sense of suspension into which ecstatic time takes over, a symbolic order removed from everyday life that hovers, numinously, over the depicted scene.
Again and again Sharon Bartel Clements creates images that linger in the mind. She has the unusual capacity to construct a visual language that resists symbolization to such a degree that the beholder has to come to terms with what appears to be an overload of conflicting and stacked possible interpretations each of which seems to nullify and to complement the other. In spherical exchange #1, for example, the main event, a tension between above and below, between circularity and linearity, between the microcosmic and the microscopic, is sensed at first to be benign. Yet incipient movement permeates what appears to be an incident of some kind, a flash of energy, a wisp of turbulence, a subliminal shift of energy is generated, a surge of some kind is inferred (a violent interference, a traumatic impact is insinuated); perhaps something cathartic is about to take place. It is hard to say, hard to pin down. It is through art-making's very complicity with the impossible that “art” takes place and finds its place (on “The Side of the Road” as the artist puts it).
For any artist, the great challenge in art is for it to infer. That is, for art to seduce the viewer by drawing the attention, somehow, to the work, but through artifice of hand and mind, inserting another level of consideration into the visual game without announcing it to the viewer. (T.S. Eliot famously compared the presumed “meaning” of a poem to “the bone thrown by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind while the poem goes about its own deeper business.”) Quicksilver illusionistic/conceptual legerdemain has been mastered by Sharon Bartel Clements. Such versatility can only have been garnered through the artist’s constant exploration and self-scrutiny, like the sleight-of-hand magician who rehearses an infinitesimal movement thousands of times in order to allow both the optical illusion and the psychic sensation of disappearance and reappearance to take place before his innocent audience. Let it be said: Sharon Bartel Clements traffics in the apparitional in her work. In this evanescent presenceing lies the very essence of her work in which physical and metaphysical dimensions merge and dissipate.
Dominique Nahas is an independent curator and critic based in Manhattan.