If a non-churchgoer can produce a set of charcoal drawings of the Stations of the Cross, then an agnostic former altar boy can sure as heaven review those works. Besides, depictions of Christ's agony and death are a core component of Western art history. And Easter is coming, so the show at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Burlington has a seasonal angle, as well.
All such justifications aside, Richard Clark's emotionally powerful pieces deserve to be seen on their own terms as skillfully executed works of art. They also happen to be the last drawings Clark made before his death in 2005.
The Vermont artist died in obscurity, an outcome largely of his own making, says Elaine Beckwith, owner of a gallery in Jamaica, Vt., that represents Clark's estate. "Richard believed his work should speak for itself," notes Beckwith, who was a friend of Clark's for many years. "He wasn't interested in publicizing it or even in getting recognition."
But Clark's survivors, who have inherited a large collection of his lithographs, "want them to be spread into the world," Beckwith adds. The gallery that bears her name is selling several editions of those prints, which appear — at least in internet images — to confirm and enhance the achievement on view in Burlington.
The grotesques lurking and leering in almost every one of Clark's Stations of the Cross owe a lot to German expressionism. The supremely ugly and contorted faces of Jesus' tormentors have antecedents in the work of artists such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, although those artists' portraits reveal stronger influences of cubism and other modernist innovations than do Clark's drawings, which are tamer and more traditional. Some of his depictions also verge on caricature; they're more cartoonish than caustic.
The artist's draftsmanship is first rate, however, and attests to his training in the MFA program at Syracuse University in the 1940s following his three-year service in the military during World War II. Clark taught art for 10 years at Miami University in Ohio before moving to Chittenden, Vt., in 1960.
Besides affording Clark the solitude he preferred, Vermont presented him with a political environment where he could give full expression to his radical views. He was a founding member of the Liberty Union Party, a forebear of sorts to today's Progressives.
Charcoal was an apt choice of medium for Clark's chiaroscuro compositions in the Stations of the Cross. Their darkness — both visual and thematic — is accentuated by white borders and black frames.
The mood of these 14 pieces that trace Christ's beatings, culminating in crucifixion, isn't just solemn; it's despairing. In Clark's treatment of these familiar scenes, there's nothing heroic or even sympathetic about the central character. Hollow-eyed and bent-backed, this Jesus is a defeated, frightened figure slouching toward Calvary.
The interpretation of Jesus as pitiable, almost pathetic, may be most stark in the seventh station of Clark's series. In a drawing that also demonstrates the artist's technical mastery, Clark employs foreshortening to show Jesus crawling toward the viewer as zombie-like guards prod and push him to arise.
The 11th station, "Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross," places the crucified victim on a sharp diagonal that's suggestive of an off-kilter world. Jesus' bared teeth present a rictus of pain beyond bearing.
Secondary or background characters wear equally repulsive expressions. Some look like gargoyles. Others, such as the figures in a group of shrouded women, recoil in fear and disdain as Jesus reaches imploringly toward them. They're not the least bit worshipful; they don't even empathize with the man/god whose blood is trickling down his face.
There's nothing attractive even about Mary, Christ's mother. In Clark's rendering, she's a wrinkled old woman who sheds no tears for her tortured son. Instead, in the final station, "Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb," an exhausted Mary looks out at the viewer with hands outstretched above Jesus' corpse in a gesture of helplessness and finality. It's a wrenchingly beautiful image.
"There's an enormous loneliness in his works," Beckwith says of Clark's prints and drawings. "There's a sense of every human coming into life alone and dying alone."