Painter Christopher Clark’s newest works evoke images from Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi’s young adult novel. The story is written as a tale is told, unfolding with moments of brilliance and hope–moments that are then undercut by brutality and pain. But the ideas of agency and transformation runs through it all.
So, too, are Clark’s works rife with possibility, endurance and elegant linework.
An autodidact–he laughingly admitted to failing several drawing classes, mostly for lack of attendance–the 31-year-old Clark brings a comic book sensibility to figurative works that reflect his experiences as a young man of African descent.
“In a lot of my work, I like to represent kids, specifically black kids, so they can see themselves in the work,” he told Folio Weekly. “I try to focus on them and do something where they can envision themselves on the canvas.”
Indeed, representation remains a barrier: “I know we [black folk] don’t go to museums and galleries a lot. I mean, even as an artist, a lot of the museums and galleries that I’ve been to, there’s not a lot of representation, so … what’s the reason to go, if you don’t see a reflection of yourself?”
Clark has been making art since he was a teenager. He credits his early experiments in music and custom clothing with teaching him a little of the business side of things. But it wasn’t until 2016 that he decided to dive all the way into his art-making.
“I was working at Citibank,” he remembered, “and Citibank’s not a bad company–I just felt like there had to be more to life than 9-to-5 and then you die.”
Clark’s studio is located on the third floor of the Union Studios building, on Union Street in the Talleyrand area. Full nearly to bursting, his work area is arranged for folks to feel calm (Clark often brings his kids to the studio) and comfortable enough to focus. There are a couple of portraits on the wall, and much more artwork stacked everywhere. He’s got a few art books and a clear space in the center of the room. Suffice it to say, the vibrations are good.
Therefore it’s interesting to contrast this incredibly positive space with one of three series the artist is currently working on. Though clearly still in development, the works depict a shadow self, perhaps something akin to a demon emerging from within the human figure. Rendered in black, these shady presences seem to have the capacity to destroy from within. He calls the series Don’t Do It: Facing Ourselves.
One piece shows a young person with a viperous form wrapped around his small figure. In place of a smile, the little boy wears an inverted “McSmile,” and in the upper left corner, there’s a line of upside-down Nike swooshes. The trompe-l’oeil collage technique, married to a commitment to a more specific black (artist-mixed) and increasingly complex compositions, could mark a rather timely group of paintings.
Sometimes We Wear Masks is the series with the closest relationship to a singular narrative. It is the suite noted earlier, the one that has a relationship with Children of Blood and Bone. (In fact, Adeyemi once reposted one of Clark’s images). Each of the 10 or so paintings features a single child. Each is in the same pose, facing the same direction, yet each is made individual. Sometimes We Wear Masks began as a studio exercise.
“The very first one–I wasn’t too happy with it, so I told myself I’d keep painting it until I got better. Each time, I made a different ‘character’ but they all started from the same blueprint,” Clark explained. The characters are not only signified by different facial details and hairstyles, but each one has a removable mask rendered in silhouette.
For Matt Winghart, owner of Atlantic Beach’s Gallery 725 and producer of limited edition Clark prints, “Chris’ work illustrates many thoughts and feelings that resonate throughout society. With a softness not to intimidate, he directly addresses social concerns as both a celebration of culture and an indictment.”
“I draw from my experiences and from the experiences of people I know, and current events,” said the artist when asked about his participation in On the Fringe: Blurred Lines of Florida Folk, at the Jacksonville Main Library’s Makerspace Gallery.
When asked if he considers himself an outsider artist, Clark answers, “I don’t think anyone is really an outsider artist. Even if you don’t go to school for art, there’s YouTube university, so you still get an education. In the past, outsider artists didn’t have anything, they didn’t have the internet, and a lot of them only had a middle school or elementary education so they couldn’t read that well. They just created from whatever was around. I still have an education, even if it’s not a formal one.”