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ARTIST OF THE ORDINARY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is a hard truth but truth nevertheless that the history of the visual arts in America has not been kind to people of color.

For most of this century, the visual arts of African-Americans have been relegated to the sidelines of mainstream exhibition and criticism. While cultural critics acknowledged the African-American contribution to music and, to a lesser extent, literature, African-American painting, sculpture, photography and printmaking remained until recently all but invisible to most white Americans.

One result of this situation has been that, with a few notable exceptions, the visual record of the black presence in America has been largely shaped by white artists, whose images often were designed to reinforce a set of severely restricted stereotypes of black identity.

As the critic Guy C. McElroy has observed, the ways white American artists historically have portrayed African-Americans constitute an index of how the majority of Americans have felt about their black neighbors.

"Prosperous collectors created a demand for depictions that fulfilled their own ideas of blacks as grotesque buffoons, servile menials, comic entertainers or threatening subhumans," McElroy noted. "These depictions were, for the most part, willingly supplied by American artists. A vicious cycle of supply and demand sustained images that denied the inherent humanity of black people by reinforcing their limited role in American society."

It is in the context of this tragic history that the photography of Baltimore artist Carl Clark must be understood. Clark's photographs, which are the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at Maryland Art Place through July 15, stand in a long tradition of protest against the visual dehumanization of African peoples in American art.

Neither a polemicist nor a propagandist, Clark's pictures are tender, knowing recitals of the ordinary moments that constitute the everyday fabric of contemporary African-American life. He is a visual historian, a social documentarian and a wry teller of tales that otherwise almost surely would go unrecorded and unremarked.

Clark's pictures are a celebration of the commonplace in a culture in which black skin is always fraught with the troublesome baggage of the past. Merely to portray black people as people, rather than as embodiments of society's anxieties, fears and obsessions, is itself a mildly revolutionary act. The power of Clark's photographs perhaps lies in the fact that they are peopled by men, women and children who seem so sublimely unaware their images could inspire such passions.

Evoking emotions

In a recent interview, Clark, 67, described his work as a personal journey toward self-understanding and self-acceptance as well as the product of a sustained and well-honed critical vision.

"My photographs are me talking to me, me emoting," he said. "I'm convinced that emotions inform the intellect, not the other way around. So I want my images to evoke emotions of some kind, to not just reflect the culture but to force the viewer to experience it in some new, intense way -- to make you contemplate, to give you pause, to stimulate. And to the extent that they do that, I think they are art."

As an example, Clark cites a photograph in the Maryland Art Place show that was taken last year during an "I Am an American Day" parade along Baltimore's North Avenue.

The picture's central figure is a plump, teen-age girl with broad features and dark skin who is twirling a baton as she dances and chants her way down the wide boulevard. She is completely absorbed in the moment, and her obvious happiness over being part of the event invites the viewer to share her pleasure.

For Clark, the picture is emblematic of a certain kind of experience that too often gets short shrift in the barrage of images propagated by mainstream media.

"My picture is a document of an event, but it also tells about a time, a people, a culture -- a Baltimore African-American culture," he says. "That alone has an emotional value, both because we like seeing ourselves and because it's that one moment when an otherwise ordinary person suddenly shines and becomes immortalized."

If Clark's teen-age baton twirler were white, blond and slender, and the setting were downtown along Charles Street, the picture would be just another image of exuberant youth. But what is perfectly ordinary in one context takes on new meanings when the circumstances are altered slightly.

Clark presents us with a subject who does not fit into white Americans' ideal of feminine beauty and a locale many white viewers probably would be reluctant to visit even for a parade celebrating America. The picture makes us realize that "ordinary" and "everyday" are relative terms, and that the difference between ordinary and extraordinary can depend merely on which side of the distorting lens of race one is looking through.

Another of Clark's signature pictures (shown on cover), "Image No. 43 From the Woman Series: (Sunday Morning While Considering a Decisive Moment)," depicts a stylish black woman wearing a hat shaped like one of singer Billie Holiday's classic gardenias as she steps out of a church onto a brilliant sunlit street. In the background, a male parishioner turns to gaze admiringly at her retreating form.

The woman's hat has the formal elegance of a Balenciaga dress photographed by Irving Penn, and the precise balance of shapes and tones recalls the visual harmonies of Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" -- that instant when the disconnected visual ephemera of the world suddenly coalesce into a meaningful pattern.

But Clark's model is not Penn's ethereal muse, Lisa Fonssagrives, and the locale is not Paris but West Baltimore. An ordinary moment? Certainly -- but one that is also charged with psychological intensity by virtue of offering a familiar mise en scene while simultaneously subverting the viewer's expectations regarding its appropriateness and meaning.

Legacy of war

Clark came to photography late in life, after a 30-year career in the Army during which he served two combat tours in the Korean and the Vietnam wars. He entered the Maryland Institute, College of Art as a graduate student in 1981 and for much of the last two decades made his living as a successful commercial photographer.

His experiences in the Army, however, profoundly altered his life in ways that are not always immediately apparent in his art.

Though he suffers the infirmities of advancing age gracefully, the memories of his war experiences engendered a post-traumatic stress syndrome that has been, artistically, both a blessing and a curse.

"It's an integral part of my life," he says of this illness. "I have integrated it into my life so it doesn't dominate me, doesn't control me. But because of it, I am who I am. Without it, I wouldn't be who I am -- as an artist or a man."

Clark finds this paradox both intriguing and intensely painful.

"I know it must sound strange, that something that could make you want to kill yourself could actually also be good," he says. "But my post-traumatic stress disorder doesn't allow me to accept evil, doesn't allow me to accept violence. It somehow, as I struggle with it -- even as I struggle with it -- lets me know that there is good, that there are many realities and that we can choose among them. All this, paradoxically, is made possible by this illness. So, sure, there are horrors; but there is no good without the bad, either."

Clark's intensely personal vision of the realities available for the artist to draw on has enabled him to accept and assimilate widely divergent influences.

"My influences are Robert Frank, Roy DeCarava, Edward Hopper, W. Eugene Smith, Eugene Richards, Sebastio Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark, Walker Evans," he says, citing just a few of the artists whose work has inspired him.

In addition, Clark feels indebted to many people whose advice and encouragement helped him discover his own artistic vision.

"People influence you because they alter your path," he said. "For example, Jack Wilgus [head of MICA's undergraduate photography department] reviewed my portfolio in 1981 and told me I could enter the school. If he hadn't done that I wouldn't be here today.

"Deborah Willis was a monumental influence when she was guest curator for MAP. She bought the 'Hat Ladies' series for the Schomberg Collection in New York, which was my first important sale. And Leslie King Hammond at MICA and Jan Howard of the Baltimore Museum of Art were both very important to my development."

Touching viewers

These days Clark's activities center mainly on personal work, family and his long commitment to helping improve the lives of his friends and neighbors in West Baltimore. He says that after a bout of serious illnesses last year, commercial work is no longer his main priority.

"I want to put a lot of energy into my new wife and child [four years ago he married photographer Linda Day Clark, who has a 19-year-old son]. Also I have seven children from previous marriages, and grandchildren. So we have a lot of family, and that takes a lot of time and energy," he says.

Clark is gratified by the effect the 60 photos in the Maryland Art Place show -- his first one-man exhibition in Baltimore -- have had on visitors.

"In the guest book at MAP someone wrote: 'I am not an emotional person, but after seeing your work my eyes are wet,' " he recalled.

"Someone else wrote: 'Your images are full of strong, powerful emotions.' And at the opening, people were crying."

For a moment, Clark fell silent, as if marveling at his own powers of expression.

"It was amazing," he said finally. "I knew my pictures had emotional content, but I had no idea it was that heavy."

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