By Gary Michael Dault

To gaze upon Clarkson’s work, however — this astonishing work — is to come to terms almost too rapidly (a quick tumble down the rabbit-hole of relocation and rethinking) with the strangeness of both the title and the inhospitable, pixilated environments that exemplify it in the exhibition.

Part Fairy Tale and part NASA direct digital feed, Clarkson’s episodic fits of sojourn in extraterrestrial space, in kingdoms that sometimes bespeak Mars (the Mars we perhaps know, say, from director Brian De Palma’s film, Mission to Mars, 2000), and sometimes evoke the Coleridgean Kubla-Khan-like ice caves of the artist’s shaping imagination—are manifested in nine objects: one large painting from 2004, two small graphite drawings from 2005, and six deliciously odd paintings in acrylic (with ink) made this year.

The gallery’s press release states that “Clarkson has been preoccupied throughout the almost 40 years of his Toronto-NewYork-Toronto based career with representations of ‘here’ in all its infinite variability.”

For three of the works, the two drawings and the large, impressive 2004 painting called Hillside, Mars #2, “here” is the Martian surface. The “here” embodied in the other six paintings, on the other hand—utterly strange and eerily exquisite things they are too—is clearly manifested by what the press release characterizes as “new speleogenetic fantasias” (the delicious term, “speleogenesis” means the origin and development of caves).

Clarkson’s oeuvre arcs, then,through two distinct realms: the twinned perspectives of outer space (everybody’s province), and the hushed, chthonic reaches of the cave, as the almost inhabitable locus of a private, poetic inner space.

The artist, who also writes very well, puts it this way in his exhibition statement: “While often exotic, these perspectives were also predictable, and I determined to locate a subverting viewpoint.

This is how I found the subterranean spaces of my recent ‘Cave’ paintings. Horizonless, although still recursive, these odd tunnels and hollowed caverns recede into a darkness of further unknowns, and seem to undermine the quotidian landscape they lie below. Like fantasy or allegory, the caves of these paintings intimate the possibility of experience beyond, behind or beneath the surface of the world.

The subverting architecture of portals and tunnels appear to open hidden levels of interconnection – sometimes absurd and humorous, occasionally illuminating or esoteric – to reveal unmonitored regions of desire, fear, and innovation.”

Not the oddest feature of this invigorating exhibition is the way Clarkson has managed, with great verve and charm—and even a touching restraint (no new-age, post Lord-of-the-Rings, graphic flim-flammery for him)—to bridge the awful, scarcely manageable gap that opens between the mind and immensity.

If you google material about NASA and Martian soil, you can get information like this: “In December 2012, scientists working on the Mars Science Laboratory mission announced that an extensive soil analysis of Martian soil performed by the Curiosity rover showed vidence of water molecules, sulphur and chlorine, as well as hints of organic compounds….”

Mars facts. But if you gaze upon Clarkson’s two exquisitely detailed drawings of the Martian terrain—as seen, presumably, by a Mars explorer like the Curiosity rover—you get the eerie feeling (given the dry, detailed, carefully rendered porousness of the mineralized plain in the picture) that Clarkson has been there. It’s a question of extreme identification made palpable.

All the more strange, then, to explore the six cave paintings and find them as real, as concrete, as touchable (given Clarkson’s hair-raising skill with trompe l’oeil effects—see his painting, Black Rope and Barrier), as hallucinatingly enterable, as anything NASA could provide, if NASA were venturing inside your mind).

The cave paintings are both exhilarating (because of their imaginative daring and technical virtuosity) and disturbing—because of the slightly queasy feeling you get of being granted an unearned visit to somebody else’s (Clarkson’s) teeming, dreaming brain.

One of the caves (see his Moth and Frog) beckons with a ethereal but etymologically convincing moth floating at the cave’s entrance. In his Mushrooms and Coins, six radiant mushrooms hover like nightlights around the cave’s stygian, rather vulval entrance.

For the highly accomplished Cascade and Curtain — an irresistibly poetic inventory of archetypal promptings (for Carl Jung, the cave stood for the “security and the impregnability of the unconscious”; for others, it’s an objective image of Hades).

For me, this particular cave of Clarkson’s—sheeted, veiled with water, rushing with a subterranean river flowing out towards the viewer—embodies the poet Swinburne’s world-weary resignation, in The Garden of Proserpine (1866), “That no life lives for ever; That dead men rise up never; That even the weariest river Winds somewhere safe to sea.”

Vie des arts, n° 243, summer 2016, pp 84-85

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