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Art review

Marking the Spirit by John Forrester Clack at Nishi Gallery

Marking the Spirit by John Forrester Clack and Tobias Oliver Clack. Nishi Gallery, 17 Kendall Lane, Canberra. Until September 11.

John Forrester Clack is a very unusual artist for our time. He is a theist, a deeply religious and spiritual artist, who in his practice surrenders to the spirit and becomes a medium through which this sense of otherness operates. However, in this exhibition, there is very little that is overtly religious in the imagery, perhaps his signature – the sign of the cross – plus the word Amen, sometimes accompanied by a small heart-shaped emblem.

Born in Wales, Clack trained at the Cardiff College of Art, then the Staffordshire Polytechnic, and completed his Master of Arts at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. His training was predominantly in the applied arts and he came to painting largely as a self-taught artist. In his formative years in the 1980s, he was drawn to the work of the formalist, British, European and American abstract artists, where surface qualities and the formal properties of the medium were privileged over content. Then it all changed with the calling, God spoke to him and his whole being and artistic practice changed fundamentally. Frank Auerbach and Alberto Giacometti remained some of his most important inspirational points of departure for his art.

About three decades ago he migrated to Australia and settled in the small hamlet of Gundaroo on the outskirts of Canberra, where he set up his studio and supplements his income by teaching drawing at the ANU School of Art.

This exhibition draws on his work from the past four years and consists of thick impasto paintings, oil and charcoal drawings as well as a monumental three-dimensional piece. The pieces have a strong transcendental quality, where the artist has stepped out of himself and surrendered to the process and the medium. It is like performance art, where we witness the trails of energy, frozen in time.

In Clack's paintings, including Mute (2012/16), the acrylic impasto medium is hurled at the surface panel and then the artist has manipulated this with thin oil glazes. The execution is in very high relief, a tactile sculptural quality, where chance and randomness play a role in the resolution of the forms. The imagery is slippery, thrown onto the surface rather than carefully modelled, and retains a freshness of the breath of creation.


Almost as an antithesis to this, the Head paintings and drawings have a restricted, almost monochromatic palette, with a low relief surface texture, but exceptional dynamism in the mark application. These seem to be lit with an inner luminosity with a quiet radiating energy. One of the finest in this series, As when the light of the lamp shines upon you (2016), has a hypnotic intensity and radiance. These paintings are indeed a high achievement and stand out in the exhibition.

The three-dimensional freestanding sculptural piece has a title based on a famous passage from Jeremiah 20:16 – If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name", then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (2016). Measuring over a metre in height, it is made of the same materials as the impasto paintings, but this time built over a metal armature. The palette is restricted and it is as if the centre cannot hold and the whole form is defined in terms of explosive energy.

As with so much spiritually charged art, it needs to be experienced in the flesh to feel the way it incorporates and challenges the surrounding space. On entering a John Forrester Clack exhibition, you have the feeling that you are witnessing something special, unusual and perhaps not entirely belonging to the terrestrial level.

In the neighbouring room there are some drawings by Clack's son, Tobias Oliver Clack, that are full of juvenile drama.