Thought-provoking work by leading artist
Vernon Clarke gives us a thematic tour through his life in 60 works now on display in the Onions Gallery at the Bermuda Society of Arts.
The pieces are grouped: Family and Friends, Work, People and Places, Portraiture, Music, Spirituality and Belief.
The portraits of his immediate family glow with life; a line drawing of himself holding his newborn grandson is sublimely tender.
His work in the prison service is portrayed on canvas, numbers 16 to 19, with each painting framed by the depressing architecture of the old Casemates corridors.
Number 18, Bad Boys, is an oblique and telling portrait of the harsh realities of prison life using a collection of confiscated objects to express stories of despair and hopelessness.
On the other hand, number 17, Tribute, shows the empathy and camaraderie of the service.
There is also a portrait of wood sculptor Chesley Trott, (number 43, Master Class) who, like Clarke, taught art to prisoners.
Music is a recurring subject.
There are fine portraits of Shine Hayward (number 60), Billie Holiday (number 42) and gombey drummers Rhythm Kings (numbers 50 and 52), where one can almost hear the snare drum through the blur of the sticks. There are three overarching symbologies and intriguing personal motifs common throughout.
First, the artist has tweaked Newton’s constant in his universe so that objects at rest tend to float, as if in zero gravity, a few inches above the surface where they would normally be resting. The effect on the viewer is to force a double take, which in turn makes the objects acquire added symbolic significance.
They are mostly everyday objects — clothes, shoes or tools — but in number 24, For Ever and Ever, the orb, a symbol of power and justice, floats above the hand of the newly arisen deity.
Second, in the majority of the works the artist has included a monarch butterfly, either casually flying past or settled, as a symbol of metamorphosis, redemption and rebirth.
Finally, there is a benign spirituality which informs most of the works. The dominant canvas is number 53, Supper at Emmaus, a direct compositional echo of Caravaggio’s 1601 painting with the same title, which is a snapshot of the moment when Peter, John and Cleopas realise their dinner companion is the risen Christ.
Vernon employs literal spiritual fireworks similar to the Pentecost, which emanate from a source on the table not visible to us and radiate outwards. The face of the Christ has the same omniscient benevolence as the God of the Revelation in number 24. This is a thought-provoking and deeply felt exhibition by one of Bermuda’s most original artists.
• Vernon Clarke: A Retrospective runs until July 24 in the Onions Gallery at the Bermuda Society of Arts
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