Having worked between Britain and Germany, on and off, for so many years, Clem Page’s education and involvement can be characterised by his relationship to Berlin and Cologne, and a specific history of art at the end of the 1980s that dominated London, and all that implies. This short essay offers, in part, the opportunity to touch on and chart specific approaches and the changing emphases in European art over the last three decades.
Although the concentration here is on Page’s painting, his relation to and use of other media is critical. A sort of mixed metaphor is at play here, where the discipline of painting is denied as well as celebrated all the way through. Such a pattern of reversal and rejection, of re-claiming and embracing, establishes an involvement with the medium which might be seen to signify a last grasp for Modernism. A matter of understanding painting as a discipline, whilst forever kicking against it.
It is good to set the scene. A heightened, liberal context characterised by Page’s friendship with the then art critic and curator Stuart Morgan and a relationship to education, characterised by the hangover of a distrust of Modernism. All this to be understood in terms of the fact that Modernism was then so much closer than it is now. How many decades of a gradual drift away from an obsession about form and its authority–from the discipline of separate media represented by art school departments divided between painting, sculpture, film and performance. A strong distrust, or even dislike, for the separation of media into distinct disciplines is very important to Page’s work. However, a sense that you know what you are ‘not’ as an artist long before, if ever, you know what you ‘are’, is also powerful. This reacts against rather than within a time of great tension in which a statement through what you do and make as opposed to what it might say, comes later. In fact, subject as such was a very different matter, as was the relation to life lived, biography, portraiture, and autobiography.
The work we are considering exists not so much as painting, but as the accumulative result of a particular and actual use of paint; the curling up, cutting through, the crashing against, and utilization of the flow of paint. The putting on and pulling off is inevitably for but mainly against the natural conclusion of material and the form it takes. The lack of structure comes without subject and yet a dominant structure grows out of physical manipulation by the artist of the material itself.Page enters the surface of subject to make material the subject itself.
Dropping, dragging, drawing, and smashing. The mirrored surface projects back to hold the material paint still. In turn this reflects the person involved and plays a very clear and particular role in the relation between one and another. Paint remains paint, however, and even when dry the association it gives, goes far. Radiating from the corner, a colossus, only when compared to the relation between subject and the ground and the fact that this subject looks to be an invented enormity, a hard-edged hugeness outlined, but made up of radiating drawn ribbons of paint that have landed together, a river made up of a series of material ribbons that are both subject and outlined object.
How does it work in terms of the extension of any possible seismic, epic or romantic space? Well, it depends on the iconography of hurtling rocks, the fundamentals of description with the main point, brought together by an artist who does not want to represent, but who, instead tries to paint in such a way that also ultimately cannot avoid or deny the pictorial expectations of the medium. There is a contradiction between the accumulated mass of dripped and dried paint and the sharply cut edge to such an apparent mass of colour. The mirror upon which it is placed then reverberates across the image, only this ultimately has the mirror as it’s background. Radiating across, craning, careering towards the centre, these flags or flaps, rocks or cliffs, stones or flying saucers, come across to enter from the side, and into the actual space we inhabit. Obviously, there is something discordant in the relation between the expectation of paint and the fact that its edge is carved out and curtailed to such a level of anti-gestural precision.
The relation between linear narrative in film and the stilled narrative of Clem Page’s paintings of 2021 is obvious, yet studied. The build-up of dropped paint, made as a result of hands-free action, but rendered still, reveals and shows a strict compartmentalisation of intention and direction. The drawn outline cuts through the front of possibility to mimic action and movement and ultimately bring about a contradiction that cuts back into the action to render all still and object-like.
Unified in its role and function as general motif of rivulet, a force of nature, gravity, and flow placed against glass is made to sit apparently in a perpetually concertinaed reflection of generated activity. This too introduces some kind of relation to drawing. While the ‘cut’ into two-dimensional raw material might actually slow and limit a flow of paint, the process is potentially as fluid as the extension of line drawn by hand with knife across a surface. But still here while at first the reinforcing of edge and apparent order allows a relation to detail that renders the original surface united and functional, it also carries the active potential of ready glued collage moved from one situation to another.
Over and over, back and back. But how immediately, automatically does the brain understand the pretence of mirrored space? The mirror is able to provide a ready-made combination of fact and illusion. By painting a figure onto the mirror, the image becomes fixed in a one-to-one relation to gravity. One where the artist is able to involve the person looking, in the space, directly with the painted image. Page’s ‘Out here everything is still floating’ 2019 is installed, arranged, and conceived in such a way that the three dimensionality of reflective life has been already built into the argument and all over effect.
Here the mirror is used as a ground, an infinite base making up a part decorative, part pre-historic presence. The mirror itself is both actual mirror and mirrored stainless steel in which the making of the mirror state is not here ready-made. The steel, polished, happens to reflect in the same way as the mirror glass itself, which is something altogether more established in this role.
But ‘Echidna’ 2020, plays with another relation to gravity, with action nonetheless thwarted, flowing down from the top, as opposed to coming in from the side, in a sort of ‘bigger splash’ of action, cut out or frozen, from hard edge to real outline. The painting is collaged onto the surface, it seems. The picture cut up, controlled and corralled into a bigger purpose.
But then suddenly, it seems, the flow is not from the side, and Page seems to be dealing with image or associated image in a very different way in ‘Lapetus 2020. Instead of a wave or force of mass coming from the top or side, details have been cut down to impish runs and an almost monochromatic range of colour, faded metal, both gold, and ocean blue, as if the world photographed from the moon or vice versa. A sort of earthy oceanic quality in a bright, formally logical relation has been cut in a way that says this is half image, half phenomena and the action at the beginning of the intervention has already been taken into consideration.
A shape-shifting collaged element on each side faces the corner and reverberates out in a highly spacey sense of weightlessness. Concentrating more, here, on the disjointed and guilty sensation of looking.
But there is a perpetual struggle between control and lack of control which goes further back into a relation between material and image, to the way that certain paint will fall and then to the inevitable pull to the image that is made accidentally through a lack of control. Page is aware of a particular moment in each work when the image is a result of painting, but painting on the other hand, still ‘hands off’ about the conclusion of weight and the force of gravity, is actuality unadulterated by the hand of the painter.
This in turn leads more towards a relation to the natural than a constructed actuality of painted matter. So, the paint remains a thing in itself as opposed, apparently, to a vehicle for image and conscious meaning.
But it is good to think back behind the look and love of imagery to the somewhat alchemic, to something grasped by the artist as a medium, as a mere enabler of meaning.
The return to painting for Page comes out of a fixation with the unconscious, as well as a major distrust of the deliberate. His use of watercolour as a medium kept a good front, as well as keeping company with the fluid and uncontrolled at a very simple level. The watercolours which carry the inevitable relation to tradition that all painting cannot help but have, also carry the sense of the fluid, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. It is a skill to use water colour efficiently and after 2007 in Berlin, Page decided to work exclusively with watercolour. His grandfather was an eminent member of the Royal Watercolour Society, though it takes no psychological sophistication to understand the love/hate relation Page, and most artists, had at the time with such a formal tradition and medium.
Working with black watercolour paint on white paper, allowing diffusion to play out a monochromatic shift that comes with the fluid relationship between a hands-off approach to the surface and the loose nature of watercolour. This inevitably leads to a familiar sense of openness, ambiguity, and yearning for the place that is art. In the series of drawings entitled ‘Innate Force’ the artist intervenes with a great ability to harness that which is around. Stone, either already touched, cut, hewed, or found in an earlier state of arrival - has been rubbed across but also coaxed into rivulets of direction, across the surface, that pick up apparent natural detail. The image mimics the breakdown of a photograph, as the detail adds up and the frequency of tonal line makes a run or flickering flourish. Again, age is allowing the nature of movement to dance across the surface. In Page’s series of drawings entitled ‘Thread Drawings’, light lines are drawn over a black ground, to mimic the actual movement of an activated animated line.
Page mentions, in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, how important it is for an artist to remain vulnerable. But this, when translated, is about making clear that any back-stage suggestion of movement, questioning, and openness, is allowed and encouraged in both formal and philosophical terms. This is about disallowing any direct relationship with bluster, with a perhaps false artistic ‘front’. Now, of course, all artists, unless out of their minds with notions of success, are vulnerable. The whole continuous principle of never being absolutely satisfied continues to rule in order for artists to get up in the morning. Even the most successful must harbour doubts in order to go on.
But this is not as clear as it may seem. Probably the best relationship is that to the process rather than the product, of doing as you go along, and allowing what is found, as well as ignored along the way, to play a part. Obviously, the manufactured, fabricated product has a perhaps more even way of arriving, for producing the actual fact but, as Page says, art is a search for meaning, not just a fixed point of achievement.