Reviewed by Jasmine Allen, director and curator, The Stained Glass Museum.
Whilst news that traditional stained glass making is now categorised as an endangered craft broke this summer, we bring reviews of not one but two solo exhibitions of contemporary stained glass in high profile galleries, one by well-established pioneering artist Brian Clarke, and the other by Pinkie Maclure, a Scottish artist emerging in the field. As Jasmine Allen writes – these exhibitions will hopefully increase the appetite for more large-scale public exhibitions of this spectacular art form.
Brian Clarke: A Great Light
Newport Street Gallery, London
Now extended until 31st December 2023
For more than 50 years, Brian Clarke has comfortably claimed the title of Britain’s pre-eminent artist working in stained glass, and his latest exhibition not only solidifies his place in the history of stained glass but also in the canon of Modern British Art. Mounted at the spacious Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall, South London, ‘A Great Light’ sees more than 60 of Clarke’s works, made 2002-2023, displayed across all six rooms of Damien Hirst’s gallery.
The first room packs the biggest punch – and is a great testament to Clarke’s talent as both stained glass artist and painter. Immediately, viewers encounter an enormous freestanding wall of stained glass, a piece created this year. Comprising no fewer than 88 individual flashed and etched sheets of glass, arranged 11 panels wide by 8 panels high in its metal frame, Ardath (Hebrew for ‘flowering field’) is a riot of glorious colour and a celebration of mouthblown coloured glass (Fig. 1). The translucent streaky pinks, yellows, oranges, green and blue morph and swirl and drip as if the glass has a life of its own. This colourful vision of blooming flowers is punctuated by poppies and daffodils with their stems. Walking around this glass installation, bathing in its coloured light, is both a memorable and uplifting experience.
Opposite is a wall of 210 small collages – principally flowers – each individually mounted in a black frame and displayed here in six horizontal rows of 35 (Fig. 2). The collages were created by Clarke whilst convalescing during a recent period of ill health, and one senses that, in the absence of working directly with coloured glass, Clarke’s yearning for form and colour was partly satisfied by the colourful natural forms of these tulips, orchids, daffodils, poppies, snowdrops and the occasional dragonfly. Each collage is a masterpiece in composition created using coloured shapes that have been cut-out from larger pieces of painted paper, a process Clarke describes as ‘cutting into colour’. These are then carefully arranged, often in layers, on black paper – an act of creativity that directly mimics Clarke’s approach to architectural glass as well as conjuring up comparisons with another master of colour and collage, Matisse. I was repeatedly drawn back to this wall of possible windows.
Gallery 2 houses the only architectural windows (those made for a particular setting) in the exhibition, where the full height of this gallery space is put to good use. Suspended from the ceiling, the aptly named Stroud Ossuary (2023, Fig. 3), made for a 16th-century house in Gloucestershire, is a homage to the gothic window. 21 individual glass panels hang, arranged in three vertical rows of seven, taking the form of a three-light window. But in place of saints or religious scenes are images of hundreds of skulls, rendered in black and white and carefully arranged on horizontal shelves (Fig. 4). A far cry from the more-often-than-not monotonous patterned windows of the gothic revival period, Clarke has taken great care not to use these motifs repetitively, so we see skulls facing forwards and backwards, upside down, and empty spaces are created at intervals, providing a break for the eyes. Lead lines interrupt and occasionally join the shelves adding further spontaneity. This translucent ossuary has all the hallmarks of a traditional window, but Clarke plays with historic convention. The coloured background is a rainbow fade moving from red at the top of the window through to orange – yellow – green and blue at the bottom, the panels differ in size – some are narrower or longer than others, and the top tier panels have rounded tops in a subtle nod to medieval tracery.
Opposite Stroud Ossuary is a large heraldic piece, which doesn’t capture the artist at his best and is perhaps the weakest in the show. Oversized heraldic emblems are arranged in a cross form. The printed glass technology, of which Clarke was a pioneer, does not work so well on this scale. It is titled ‘HENI the Eighth’ (2023) in honour of HENI, the art company that are long-time collaborators with Clarke and for whose headquarters the window was made. The intended location of the glass – a street-facing window of a red-bricked Victorian warehouse building in Soho – helps explain the glazing thickness and finish, and some of the emblems, which include ‘VR’ (Victoria Regina) as well as ‘HENI’. As ever with an architectural commission, full judgment must be reserved for viewing it in its intended position and context.
Moving from these white cube gallery spaces into Gallery 3, where the walls are painted black, we are reminded that our experience of colour relies on light and dark. As one’s eyes adjust to the darkened room, spotlights reveal the snail-like trails of Clarke’s lead-on-lead drawings. Although other post-war artists combined sheet lead with coloured glass in their artworks (an example by Geoffrey Clarke can be seen in the collection of The Stained Glass Museum), Brian Clarke was the first artist to invert traditional stained glass and fully exploit the versatility of lead, creating pieces where there is more lead than glass and even eliminating the glass entirely. Half of this room is devoted to lead artworks where flowers and skulls are again the principal emblems. Some of the panels with glass are backlit, appearing like illuminated X-Ray photographs, and others include opalescent textured glass, giving the effect of an inlaid marble sculptural relief.
Separated by a wall, on the other side of the room, are five enormous lead works in which a relief is created by lead lines applied to the surface as if painting on a canvas. One of these works, ‘Don’t forget the lambs’, incorporates fleur-de-lys motifs in stained glass and what appears to be one of Clarke’s earlier cross paintings from the 1980s, inset into the bottom right-hand corner, but some are pure lead. In Study for Portrait of a Musician (2007), one of the most minimalist of these works, are five hands drawn in lead-lines in the lower part of the lead canvas with some signature cross forms above. The arrangement of the hands recalls a Last Supper scene, but these hands are dislocated from any figural presence. The gestures of these isolated hands speak volumes of absence – these pieces were made after the death of the artist’s mother, Lilian, and deal with his subsequent grief. They are moving and intimate works that trace (quite literally in lead) the forms of his mother’s hands and everyday objects with physical connections to her. Photographs and handwritten shopping lists become relics, whilst the inclusion of texts such as ‘the office of the dead’ from the Book of Common Prayer reflects the ceremonial Christian rite of the funeral and saying goodbye.
Moving upstairs, we ascend into the light again, and a room devoted to Clarke’s ‘grisaille’ works from 2002. The curiously titled Studies for Caryatids, but let’s call them ‘the swimmers’ (as my 2.5-year-old did), are the only figurative artworks in the exhibition and appear as rather superficial images. These upright pieces each show a different young man with a ‘beach perfect’ body, standing on Miami beach wearing sunglasses or goggles and swimming trunks (Fig. 5). Made in 2002, it is unclear if Clarke is aware of how this subject matter might sit more awkwardly in 2023. Amongst these male pin-ups, there is not a body hair or rounded belly in sight, and in the age of social media and increasing concerns over body shaming especially amongst queer men, the subjects might be considered a bit crass. But I also found some humour in these seven static figures as they stood before me, arranged in a 3–4 formation like overblown Subbuteo players, or more apt in 2023 – an army of ‘beach-ready’ Kens.
Subject-matter aside, technically these works are of great interest – and demonstrate another way in which Clarke developed the medium. The images are formed from three laminated layers of glass, each layer has a dot matrix of a single colour printed onto the glass surface. This technique is more effective in the three landscape pieces Studies in Grisaille mounted on the other side of this room, from which if you look carefully emerge shadowy outlines of large warships in the distance. Although there are only three layers of dots – the top layer being black, the blue and yellow and blue and red layers combine to make both green and purple. The dots oscillate in front of your eyes and the image comes in and out of view. This optical effect is even more poignant upon learning the context of these works, which were based on photographs taken from the window of Clarke’s friend John Edwards as he drifted in and out of consciousness towards the end of his life.
We return to full colour in the next room where eight of Clarke’s folding coloured glass screens, most of which were executed between 2016 and 2018 and exhibited at Clarke’s solo show The Art of Light at The Sainsbury Centre, Norwich in 2018, dazzle. Walking among these works, which include a variety of images including atomic bombs, medieval glass from Canterbury Cathedral, jellyfish, and binary code, opens up the experiential possibilities of stained glass.
Moving into the final room of the exhibition, a series of more recent works collectively titled Kabinettscheiben (2019–2022), developed from Clarke’s Vespers series of watercolours and more recent collages, returns to the natural themes that have preoccupied the artist in recent years. Pinks and purples and whites and blues dominate in both the five freestanding large screens and 13 small panels on plinths in either black or silver frames. The addition of the silver frames gives the impression of a luxury home interior and adds a feminine energy to this room.
When Damien Hirst opened the Newport Street Gallery in 2015, it was primarily to show works from his own art collection. However, ‘A Great Light’ honours Hirst’s friend Clarke, who celebrated his 70th birthday this summer. There are some tangible connections between the two artists’ work – both have created a series of dot artworks, and skulls and more recently natural forms, are shared motifs, but the similarities end there.
For those familiar with Clarke’s work this is a reminder of his talent. The works on show here only encompass work from the last two decades – and offer a tantalising glimpse of what impact a retrospective spanning the last five decades might have. For those whom this exhibition serves as an introduction to Clarke and stained glass, it will no doubt impress and surprise. It is rare to see an entire gallery filled with contemporary stained glass, and I can think of no one better placed than Brian Clarke to demonstrate to the art world and the public the power of this medium.
Pinkie Maclure: The Lost Congregation
17 June – 19 September 2023
400 miles north, in Glasgow, Scottish artist Pinkie Maclure’s first solo show ‘The Lost Congregation’ at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), exploits the traditional narrative function of stained glass through images addressing issues of contemporary relevance including the beauty industry, addiction, feminism, and climate change.
Maclure is a multidisciplinary artist and established singer-songwriter with ten recorded albums under her belt (predominantly as part of electronic duo Pumajaw), but in recent years she has devoted her time to working in stained glass. ‘The Lost Congregation’ sees three rooms of the ground floor CCA gallery space devoted to Maclure’s work. It brings together several small-scale works mounted in lightboxes, displayed in two side rooms, and a large immersive stained glass installation with audio-visual and performance elements in the central room.
The Soil (2023, Fig. 6) is a commentary on disappearing rural communities, nature taking back abandoned buildings, and climate change. The installation is conceived as a fictional abandoned chapel, where a large stained glass artwork assumes the place of a traditional three-light east window. Rows of empty open benches provide the chapel’s seating, and dying branches scattered around create the feeling of discovering a ruined building. ‘Dust won’t lie’, written, sung and recorded by Pinkie Maclure with her long-term collaborator 3D sound scenographer John Wills, provides an atmospheric sonic backdrop with childlike whispers, chants and songs, whilst moving images of the coloured light refracted by stained glass windows are projected onto the floor.
A towering stained glass artwork depicting a women gardener urinating on a heap of compost is the focal centrepiece. She has long Mary-of-Egypt-like golden hair, a radiant halo, and is shown wearing green wellies and gardening gloves, her hands clasped together almost in prayer. The work was partly inspired by a quote from Bette Midler – ‘My whole life had been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap’.
Whilst the act of urinating might seem an irreverent subject for the medium of stained glass – so often associated with sacred contexts,1 this is a serious commentary on climate change. The nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus nutrients in human urine are beneficial to plant growth and heathy topsoil and, according to the UN, the world could run out of topsoil in 60 years. In a further nod to environmental practice, reuse and recycling, Maclure has used predominantly salvaged glass from an old greenhouse to make this piece, alongside mouthblown flashed coloured glass, which are primarily used to illustrate vegetation on the allotment.
Amongst the smaller stained glass panels in the adjoining rooms are pieces that touch on a myriad of societal issues, some universal and others more personal. Pills for Ills, Ills for Pills (2018, Fig. 7) is a striking work on the subject of Britain’s growing opioid consumption, as well as a reflection on the artist’s own experience of losing friends to heroin addiction. From a distance, the composition appears decorative, but up close the forms of a male and female figure in flashed ruby glass, writhing around with their heads thrown back, are revealed. The blue background is offset by a trail of white pills on black production lines forming the outline of a demon. Elsewhere, depictions of the opium poppy in its stages of growth and harvest are illustrated.
Besides new work The Soil, most of Maclure’s stained glass works are small-scale, and predominantly made using copper foil rather than lead calme to join together the disparate pieces of glass. Maclure has harnessed the copper foil technique, first popularised by Tiffany in the late 19th century, to her advantage. It enables her to work organically, creating her image from a mosaic of fragmented irregular shards of glass, often working with layers of flashed glass, which are invariably etched, and painted with a combination of grisaille, stain and enamels. The fractured lines in her works are a metaphor for a fractured world, broken society and threatened ecological system.
Maclure is an artist who is drawn to big themes and her works provoke discussion as well as providing political commentaries on notions and concepts of beauty, education, knowledge, and a women’s right to choose. Beauty Tricks (2017, Fig. 8) and Two Witches (Knowledge is Power) (2021) are both figurative works that require close looking to appreciate the entangled imagery and layers of symbolic detail. Beauty Tricks explores ideals and notions of beauty in our contemporary world. A blond-haired woman in a pink and purple dress, standing with her arms outstretched is a reference to Piero della Francesco’s Madonna of Mercy from the Polyptych of the Misericordia (1460-62). Yet this icon is here transformed into a willing victim of the beauty industry. The woman’s torso is marked for plastic surgery, Botox needles and scalpels can be seen in her halo, whilst her long hair contains other references to body image – a bulimic woman being sick, and a grandmother figure knitting a chain of barbie dolls. Two Witches (Knowledge is Power) is another empowering work that references and ridicules the 16th-century practice in Britain of accusing women who educated themselves of witchcraft.
In ‘Lost Congregation’, Pinkie Maclure emerges as a rising star, demonstrating there is a place for stained glass in the world of art and activism, and I’m here for it.
- Some will appreciate the irony here, given that urine has long been associated with stained glass and was often used to mix glass paint in the medieval period.