On Tuesday at the Yale Center for British Art, Catherine Spencer, a lecturer in art history at the University of St. Andrews, delivered a talk about the visual impact and political commentary of British abstract artist Prunella Clough’s painting, “Machine and Birds.”
Spencer presented to an audience of about 20 faculty members, staffers and graduate students in front of the painting in the museum’s abstract art section.
“Here, Clough is responding to visceral changes of the time, thinking about effects that are specific to the environment she is encountering,” Spencer said during the talk.
Spencer interpreted Clough’s “Machine and Birds” as resisting picturesque forms of landscape. She explained that the British landscape underwent significant changes in infrastructure during Clough’s lifetime and that the theme of ecological politics is present across the artist’s works.
Spencer disagreed with a popular interpretation that reads the painting through a left-wing socialist view of factory work and the assembly line. She emphasized that this argument is diminished by the work’s abstractions, which places a distance and degree of isolation between the artist and the subject matter. Clough explored the themes of war, destruction and imperialism, rooting her paintings in the sociocultural context, according to Spencer.
“I also want to resist the reading that there’s a melancholic aspect to the reading of landscape which implies a sort of nostalgia for the nationalism of the time,” Spencer said. “By contrast, I think that Clough’s work speaks to the relationship of industry and empire, without glorification of the toxic and visceral implications of nationalism and capitalism.”
According to Spencer, Clough frequently engaged with creative, nontraditional media to portray scenery and landscapes. Although some of Clough’s earlier works were realist landscape studies, she produced increasingly abstract work filtered by “evocative displacements, fragmentation and layering,” Spencer said. Clough’s approaches to abstraction, including the technique of layering dark paint on her canvases, produced a weathered look in her works.
“We could be looking at the shabby flock of birds here in the center of the picture frame, the scatter could be part of the machine. There’s an interesting slippage between definitions of things,” Spencer said. “But the more closely you look at [‘Machine and Birds’], the more layers — literal layers — you can see. You can get a good sense of the materials and working process.”
Spencer described that instead of painting on canvases in the traditional sense, in her later works, Clough also cut up canvases and incorporated atypical materials like metal sheets. Spencer noted that one of Clough’s colleagues once said that every time Clough passed by construction sites, she would gather materials for her art.
Talk attendee Robert Stout, professor of anesthesiology at the School of Medicine, commented that Clough’s art can be experienced in different ways by different viewers.
“Abstract art is somewhat like poetry in that varied interpretations can emerge, even if the poet or the painter did not intend for these effects. ‘Machine and Birds’ somewhat reminds me of another art exhibit … which also has the message of deindustrialization.” Stout said. “[‘Machine and Birds’] could also be conveying the message of going forward, that life finds a way, that nature reinvests in the abandonment of industrial structures.”
The Yale Center for British Art was established in 1966.
Viola Lee | firstname.lastname@example.org .