A New, Gorgeous Book of Art:
The first thing that strikes me about Clive Hicks Jenkins’ art is the motion of it. Always, there is a sense of an action not quite complete on the canvas, a life un-stilled by the process of its recording by the artist. The figures, shadows, and hidden recesses in his massive conté drawings, prints, and paintings, as well as in his sketches are all seething with life. And none of it is sterile motion—the figures move with purpose, driven by an uncontrollable emotion. As Marly Youmans describes “The Congregation of Birds” in her chapter of this new monograph, “The legs are drawn upward in a posture that at once suggests slumber, dance, and leaping” (109).
St. Francis is thus caught not in one moment of time, but in his being. His knees are red from kneeling, and indeed, maybe he is just now dropping to them, or rising from them, but whatever the motion is, it is some ecstatic motion, full of the joy of being and worshipping and proclaiming his love.
Each painting starts with sketches, and you can imagine the atelier littered with them, some taped to the wall or the easel, some scattered across the floor for the artist to dance across, eyeing them from all directions and from all positions, and in motion. A sketch becomes a maquette, a flat puppet of moving parts which then gets tacked on the wall, only to shift and leap and twist into some other position every time the artist turns his back until suddenly, everything is exactly as it should be, the core of the character is somehow distilled in a particular motion, and the painting begins.
Here is another fact of Clive’s painting techniques which many of the authors in this book touch on: every canvas begins with red. Red oxide paint covers every inch, and is there beneath every figure, forming what Clive describes as the life-blood pulsing just beneath the skin, which you can sometimes just see, as in the St. Francis painting, where, as Youmans points out, the kneeling has left its mark, or the hint of the stigmata ghosts along his foot; or in this painting of St. Hervé and the Wolf, the heat of the complex emotions between the two burns through.
There is a miraculous moment in this monograph, when Marly Youmans writes a fictional piece alongside the painting “Touched,”
a story which glows and unravels and sharpens with the intensity of a perfect, lucid dream. In this dream, Clive is taking tea with Jean Cocteau:
“The most marvelous light, Cocteau says, gesturing at a raspberry-coloured tree. He sloshes tea on the tablecloth in his enthusiasm.
The clothes of the painter and Cocteau are dusted in lime-green. A few petals cling to their jackets and hair. The two drink more tea and talk about dreams and visions while clouds draw blue shadows over them and then pass by. The sunlight steadies.
Nothing appears soft-edged or blurred. Everything stands distinct in the light. Every line is as strong as the facet of a crustal, every colour as rich as a jewel.”
At this point, something miraculous occurs, which I will leave you to discover in the book itself. Marly follows the moment of revelation thus:
“The clarity of a dream, he says.
The light increases enormously, and the paths and trees burn, every pebble and twig distinctly present. The painter’s hands tremble as he drinks in the brilliance and crisp edges of the garden, the glimpses of saints, and the young Virgin, her crimped hair verring from her head like a cockeyed halo.
This is what I wanted, he thinks, more light and every intent so clear. Colour that says anything is possible. Nothing hidden (104, Youmans).”
And that is what he achieves, as well, and the book is full of examples of it, large, lush reproductions on almost every page. There is a wide range of writing-style in here; all of it is fascinating. Kathe Koja describes the dance of the maquettes with a wonderful lyricism, and explores another of the main draws—for me—to Clive’s art: where it takes you. As she quotes him in a description of the beginnings of his journey through the theatre-life, she grasps hold of a powerful and telling phrase:
Clive Hicks-Jenkins: I used to be a puppeteer, my first job after I left ballet school. It was a serious company, presenting an intriguing blend of techniques…I became expert with marionettes, learned the techniques of black theatre, was deft with shadow puppets and rod puppets of all persuasions…As a dancer, I appeared with puppets as my partners.
By the time I was through, I had been spoiled for my initial choice of career as a dancer. Too many ideas flying around my head! Instead I evolved into a choreographer, a stage director and designer, and I carried with me the puppeteer’s love of masks, mechanical simulacra, and sleight-of-hand.
“‘Sleight of hand’ is an apt, and delicious, description for the basis of the painter’s art: deft, arduous, painstaking motor skill yoked with the power to make of what is not there, what is; not to deceive but to enlarge the experience of seeing, and enable the eye and the heart to take in what the creating, presenting mind intends: a man, a saint, a bird or a beast, where there are ‘really’ only strokes of colour on a flat plain. Is art ‘real’? Yes. And no (142, Koja).”
Not to deceive but to enlarge the experience of seeing. Exactly.
And back to the collection of moments or emotions caught in each of his paintings that makes each of them so un-still, so alive: that feeling is—it must be—a result of the contact between the painted and the painter, a moment described once in the old myths of the sculptor whose Venus came to life: he had formed her, yet she already ‘was,’ and the creator and created met in that electric moment of the not-real revealing itself as real.
“…a maquette is posed, exercised, put through various paces on the studio wall, but the ultimate gift of this dance is neither completely controllable nor wholly imagined beforehand: the maquette’s own being is a gift to Hicks-Jenkins in his process, and to the finished piece of work as a whole (146, Koja).”
Anita Mills also addresses this motion. She goes through the artist’s old sketch books and describes the moment when she feels he came to that particular ability, that unique talent of combining all his talents into one, or choreographing and taking part in a dance with the scene unfolding beneath his hand. Surprisingly, this moment occurred not in a ‘narrative’ painting (in the usual sense of the word!), but in plein air drawing—in landscape sketches, when he suddenly realized that he wasn’t making maps or topographical records; he was capturing the mood, motion, weather—the life of the moment. And as she states, ..."he has a deft ability to abstract a subject, distilling it to its most essential spirit (131 Mills)."
Before this review becomes longer than the book itself, I should close with a few clear statements about it. First of all, it’s big, and hardbound, and heavy (and red), and yet I have carried it with me everywhere ever since it arrived in the mail. It is full of large, gorgeous reproductions spanning Clive’s entire career, from a lovely drawing of Nefertiti impressively rendered by an awe-struck nine-year-old through stage sets and costume designs from his theatre days, and right up to his most recently (at this time) shown work, “Christ Writes in the Dust: The Woman Caught in Adultery.” The writing throughout is a fantastic mix of biography, analysis, and creative response, and on every page there is something to make you stop, ponder, and dream. And create.
I couldn’t recommend it more highly.