“Breaking down pre-conceptions”

Simon Watney, January 2008

View PDF

Ece Clarke is an artist who works on paper in a vari­ety of media. The ini­tial impact of much of her recent work is sculp­tural, largely because she chooses to roll up indi­vid­ual painted sheets into column-like cylin­ders, which are dis­played in a vari­ety of hor­i­zon­tal and some­times ver­ti­cal com­bi­na­tions. In some ways they resem­ble rows of mys­te­ri­ous rolled car­pets, or sacred objects in a shrine. Each sheet is densely and richly tex­tured, some­times metal­lic in appear­ance, at other times vis­cous. She also fre­quently uses smoke to great effect, cre­at­ing forms which can range from shim­mer­ing cloud-like trans­parency to areas of intense and brood­ing dark­ness. There is a strong nar­ra­tive sense in much of her work, but it is a nar­ra­tive of purely formal visual ele­ments rather than of story-telling or descrip­tion. One senses an artist who sup­presses her own ego in order to let the work com­pose itself, who cher­ishes the acci­den­tal and allows it to guide her rather than impos­ing her own will on it. Each work has its own auton­omy, released and given form like a genie from a bottle by her deter­mined energy. I spoke with her recently in her London studio:

S.W. Where did you grow up and what are your ear­li­est strong visual mem­o­ries?

E.C. My ear­li­est mem­o­ries are divided between two coun­tries — Ger­many and Turkey. My mem­o­ries from Ger­many are set against a grey back­ground, sim­i­lar to Kiefer’s work, with deep pri­mary colours in the fore­ground on things like the well- made toys of the kinder­garten. From Turkey, I have a strong memory of being in the car with my par­ents approach­ing the border from Bul­garia. As you cross the border Turk­ish music sud­denly starts on the radio — very excit­ing — a signal that I was return­ing to my own cul­ture, and a fore­taste of things to come. And in the back­ground were sun­flower fields against a clear sky, yellow and blue, reced­ing end­lessly into the dis­tance.

S.W. Were there any other artists in your family?

E.C. My mother had a cousin from the art acad­emy (Yilmaz Yüzgeg) who intro­duced my uncle (Niyazi Top­to­prak) to paint­ing. He was always there as I grew up, and it was he who first got me into paint­ing. He is still work­ing as an artist and has had over a hun­dred exhi­bi­tions since 1969. Look­ing back now I can also see my mother’s influ­ences in my more recent work. She is a multi-tal­ented artist and has done work in stained glass, embroi­dery, sewing, paint­ing and so on.

S.W. When did you begin to paint?

E.C. I always had access to brushes, paper, paint, and other mate­ri­als. When I was 17 my uncle let me finish one of his paint­ings. I felt very con­fi­dent and I never stopped after that. My early work was mainly fig­u­ra­tive — in pas­tels and oils. This was the sub­ject of my exhi­bi­tions in Istan­bul during 1980s. But some­how the idea of cre­at­ing illu­sions on canvas or paper became less sat­is­fy­ing and about 10 years ago I realised that for me form was as impor­tant as colour.

S.W. Do you draw or use a camera?

E.C. Draw­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy have dif­fer­ent func­tions for me and serve dif­fer­ent pur­poses. Some­times I draw, some­times I use a camera. My draw­ings and pho­tographs are part of a process of gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion and devel­op­ing my ideas — means rather than an ends in them­selves. These days my draw­ings are part of a process of devel­op­ing my ideas around tex­ture and form — 1 spend a lot of time draw­ing, most of which are never used or shown — they are often intu­itive and I let them develop in their own way.

S.W. Where did you study?

E.C. I stud­ied in Ger­many and Istan­bul and more recently took an MA in Fine Arts in London at the City & Guilds School of London Art School.

S.W. Tell me some­thing about your expe­ri­ence as an art teacher.

E.C. I have taught both lan­guages and art. In my expe­ri­ence it doesn’t matter what you are teach­ing — you are the person with expe­ri­ence and access to the sub­ject and your role is to develop the ideas and under­stand­ing of another person.

My aim as a teacher was to find the right way to reach a stu­dent — which can only be done if you under­stand the stu­dent well and can see what will work for that person. Every stu­dent has their own way of per­ceiv­ing and their own poten­tial. You have to under­stand how to present a sub­ject effec­tively to the stu­dent. Then progress comes much more quickly and easily. I find this very sat­is­fy­ing, which is why I have always loved teach­ing.

S.W. Are there any artists with whom you feel a par­tic­u­lar affin­ity, or poets or other cre­ative people?

E.C. There are many artists I could men­tion and the list is very varied. Rem­brandt — for the depth of dark­ness that he cre­ated in his work and the tex­ture of his whites. Rothko for the power and pres­ence of his paint­ings — its hard to explain why I feel so strongly about his work, but it is very impor­tant to me. Kiefer has such a strong bond with the past — it cap­tures some­thing of my mem­o­ries of early life in Ger­many — the greys and the tex­tures — with­out regard for rules. And others — Richard Serra, and James Tur­rell for exam­ple

S.W. Your work is very much con­cerned with the qual­ity of sur­faces. Where do you think this comes from?

E.C. I am more inter­ested in things that are tan­gi­ble — things that are real rather than just illu­sions. The sur­face is the first step away from a one-dimen­sional stage to three dimen­sions. It helps to create the depth within my work and to con­nect it to the out­side world.

S.W. When did you start work­ing on cylin­dri­cal forms?

E.C. I was always inter­ested in dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal solids such as spheres and other ellip­tic forms, and became fas­ci­nated with the math­e­mat­i­cal sign for eter­nity. If you look at this as the end of a three-dimen­sional form, then it would be the end of two cylin­ders –and it started from there. I found that using cylin­dri­cal forms served sev­eral pur­poses. The join­ing of the two ends of a single sheet to form a cylin­der brings the begin­ning and the end into the same place — cre­at­ing a very dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal form — three dimen­sional rather than two — and cre­ates an inner space within the cylin­der and outer space. As a result of making this form, it is no longer pos­si­ble to per­ceive all of the sur­face at once — part will always remain hidden from the observer. This helps the works to be objects with their own iden­tity and pres­ence, and also to break down the viewer’s expec­ta­tion of the work as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of some­thing else.

S.W. How do you set about com­bin­ing indi­vid­ual ele­ments into groups?

E.C. Every piece is made inde­pen­dently. After sev­eral pieces have been com­pleted I lay them on the floor and see whether there are any nat­ural com­bi­na­tions. I don’t set out to make a series by trying to develop new pieces to match one another. That is why there is no guar­an­tee that a com­bi­na­tion will occur. Some­times the first time you match them you know it is right — there is no need to try again. But some­times they don’t get on so well. So I have many pieces left over which don’t match into a group. They are wait­ing for their turn — if there is one.

S.W. Is your work always intended to be dis­played against the wall?

E.C. Not nec­es­sar­ily. I have exhib­ited free-stand­ing cylin­ders in the past and plan to do the same in my next exhi­bi­tion. How­ever, most of them will be set on alu­minium panels, which will be hung on the wall.

S.W. What do you like about print-making, and how does it relate to your paint­ings?

E.C. There is a phys­i­cal ele­ment to my work which is impor­tant for me. The effort that I put in to work­ing the mate­ri­als is part of devel­op­ing a rela­tion­ship with them. Although print-making and paint­ing are not the same from the point of view of process, I put a tremen­dous amount of effort into work­ing the mate­ri­als into the paper when I am paint­ing. The mate­ri­als are pressed into the sur­face, in a way that is sim­i­lar to the force applied by the print­ing press if not more so. In both cases the mate­ri­als enter the paper and become part of its struc­ture.

Just as I don’t follow any par­tic­u­lar rules when I am paint­ing, I also break many rules in print-making. I can’t print more than 4 or 5 times from some of the plates that I create because of their soft­ness.

S.W. Tell me about your studio. Do you listen to music when you are work­ing?

E.C. I have already explained that my idea of trans­form­ing flat sur­faces into cylin­ders goes back sev­eral years. It is an inter­est­ing coin­ci­dence that when I moved into my cur­rent studio in London, I found an enor­mous Vic­to­rian gas works in front, with a huge stor­age cylin­der across the road out­side my window. As you can imag­ine, my studio is full of cylin­ders — and some­times it seems like the gas works is an exten­sion of my studio.

I like to listen to music when I am paint­ing, but I can’t have music play­ing when I am devel­op­ing com­bi­na­tions. Some­how this requires silence. For a long time, while I was lis­ten­ing to Rach­mani­nov, my work mainly con­sisted of swirls. At the moment I am lis­ten­ing to requiems, espe­cially Mozart’s. If I don’t feel very deeply emo­tional I like to listen to Kalin­nikov. When I listen to Turk­ish music by musi­cians like Dede Effendi and Haci Arif I get com­pletely dif­fer­ent emo­tions.

S.W. You often use scorch­ing and smoke in your works. What does fire mean to you?

E.C. My work is strongly involved with trans­for­ma­tion — taking mate­ri­als and turn­ing them into some­thing else. There is an impor­tant bound­ary between the mate­ri­als as they are and the thing that they become as the work devel­ops. Fire rep­re­sents another bound­ary — involv­ing a rad­i­cal change in mate­ri­als into a com­pletely dif­fer­ent form­less state. I find that bound­ary very inter­est­ing and have been exper­i­ment­ing with what hap­pens at the edge — just before a com­plete trans­for­ma­tion occurs.

Fire and smoke, and the uni­ver­sal shapes that they con­tain, have always been very secre­tive and mag­i­cal for me. They are fun­da­men­tal ele­ments of nature — and my inter­est in frac­tual shapes and nat­u­rally occur­ring forms has led me to work with these wild ele­ments, seek­ing to cap­ture them on paper as part of my work.
This is an area I am still explor­ing, and I am not sure where it will take me at this point.

S.W. How do you know when a piece is fin­ished?

E.C. It is clear to me when a paint­ing is fin­ished — when the depth and the light have devel­oped to the right extent and the bal­ance feels right. Of course, some may need var­nish, others don’t — it is a very instinc­tive rela­tion­ship that I have with the paper and the work, and hard to explain.

When set­ting up indi­vid­ual com­po­nents into a sequence, there is never a fin­ish­ing point. Every time I work on them, and as new paint­ings are com­pleted, there are other ways to put them together. This process is only likely to be fin­ished when the works are exhib­ited, as that is prob­a­bly my last chance to decide on the right com­bi­na­tion, unless there is another set­ting at a sub­se­quent exhi­bi­tion of course.

S.W. Which responses to your work have given you most plea­sure?

E.C. I feel happy when people are cap­tured by the colours and tex­ture, the depth and mys­tery within the work, and share some of the excite­ment I have expe­ri­enced — that is very sat­is­fy­ing. It is nor­mally the people who don’t ask what the work means who have made the most direct con­nec­tion with the work as it is — as an object in its own right — and that is very impor­tant for me. Of course people are often inter­ested in how the work is done and what it is made from, and they are often sur­prised when they are told that it is made from paper rather than leather or metal. It is help­ful to break down people’s pre-con­cep­tions.

“Breaking down pre-conceptions”