Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, WV, group exhibition
I Don't Get It: Non-objective Works from the Permanent Collection
(please see exhibition page for image of in situ at the Huntington Museum)
West Virginia native Paula Clendenin received both her BA and MFA degrees from West Virginia University in Morgantown, and currently works as Professor of Art at West Virginia State University. Born in Charleston, she spent most of her childhood with her mother in Cedar Grove, a small coal mining town. Memories of her childhood reveal her early interest in textures and the surface patina of the objects around her. During a trip to Paris, Clendenin once again became intrigued with the old walls and edifices around the city.
Clendenin’s previous work concentrated on the use of personal symbols and mystical color. in situ instead reveals the life-long interest in texture, the surface of the work emphasized through an abstract pattern of time-worn paint strokes and the scratches of graffito, the practice of drawing directly into a wet paint surface. Colors are muted, a field of mottled gray and white giving way to a central door-like motif, reminiscent of the window form in Robert Motherwell’s Albert Suite, No. 9 on display here. Unlike the abstract expressionist’s work, however, here the door is opened slightly to reveal a field of black beyond it, quietly suggesting a metaphorical interpretation of the work. In an exhibition essay written by Huntington Museum of Art Senior Curator Jenine Culligan, it is suggested that the artist is indeed “in situ,” consistently able to access the creative place in herself between the conscious and the unconscious. The abstract void that opens away from us in this canvas’s center may perhaps be seen as the path to that creative core.
Drawn to the Ocean on a Rainy Day:
New Works by Paula Clendenin
by Jenine Culligan, Senior Curator
Huntington Museum of Art
In a downtown section of Charleston, West Virginia, a lone block of buildings stands out amongst a sea of concrete and parking lots. This “U-shaped” grouping of late 19th century three-storied structures, built around a large, private, inner courtyard, is inhabited by a disparate cluster of Charleston artists
and supporters of the arts. One of these homes, with a particularly inviting front porch, is the home and studio of the artist Paula Clendenin.
Once inside, it becomes immediately obvious that the living and working
areas are not clearly delineated, evidence of the lack of boundaries made between art and life. Each floor has a room that has serendipitously become a working studio, filled with works in progress, comfortable chairs, photographs, books, paints, oil sticks (cow markers) and found materials that will some day make their way into a drawing, a painting or be the inspiration for a print.
Clendenin, who is a native West Virginian, moved away for more than
twenty years after earning both her MFA and BA from West Virginia University in Morgantown. She moved back to the state in 1990 to take care of her ailing grandmother - and stayed, taking a position at West Virginia State University,
where she is now full professor. The only child of divorced parents, Clendenin spent her childhood in Cedar Grove, a small coal mining town, which Clendenin describes as being very “Mayberry-like.” In her youth, sheltered by a loving mother and grandmother, she was unaware of the economic hardships
surrounding her. Even as a child, Clendenin remembers being drawn to the peeling paint and rich surface textures on the weathered clapboard houses of her neighbors.
She has remained naturally attracted to the patina of objects, and experimented with surface techniques while in graduate school. In 2002 during a month-long visit to Paris, France, she became intrigued with and photographed the time-worn walls and edifices across that ancient city. These photographs have become the inspiration for a recent series of drawings
and paintings which she began in summer 2005, and which make up this
exhibition. Clendenin has backed off on her mystical use of bright colors contrasted against dark backgrounds, and has focused instead on her more subtle and intrinsic first love - experimenting with old textures.
In 1990, when first returning to West Virginia, Clendenin began using recurring symbols in her drawings, prints, and paintings, especially Gothic arch shapes suggesting mountains, simplified leaf forms, crescent moons, vessels, and crosses. These flat, frontal pictograms became a personal lexicon evoking both the natural and the spiritual world.
A few years ago, Clendenin shifted to still life ‘ painting. This series was full of optimism, hope for the future, and confidence. Then she broke her arm - in five places - and ultimately had to have the arm re-broken in order for it to heal correctly. For at least a year and a half, Clendenin dealt with the frustrations of
mending and the struggle to create. During the healing process, her approach to still life painting changed, and her symbols from the past became organically joined to images of hands. Often bright colors and shapes are partially covered under soft layers of pigment, simultaneously revealing the images and making them less obtrusive - adding both deep structure and surface structure. These new works reflect a more cautious approach - still hopeful, but with an understanding that not everything is in one’s personal control - not in
“one’s own hands.”
As in 16th and 17th century Flemish still life paintings, which develop the idea of “vanitas” - revealing the impermanence of life by showing both beauty and decay - these recent works explore the feeling of vulnerability, while at the same time explore surface play. Clendenin also employs sgraffito - drawing
directly into the wet paint surface, and for the first time is introducing new materials - additive elements which refer to West Virginia, including coal and rusted steel. Paula Clendenin believes this is an important and profound time in her life. She feels as though she is completely “in-situ,” meaning that
she is consistently able to find her “zone of least resistance” and access that creative space between the conscious and unconscious - that place where “stuff is hidden.” Breaking her arm was an enormously important event. It also broke the direction of Clendenin’s work, slowing her down, and allowing her time to reflect on and revisit many of the ideas she had begun to explore 30 years ago.
Paula Clendenin: The Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences
by Ric Ambrose, Chief Curator
The Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences presents, for the first time, a survey of Paula Clendenin’s sustaining body of work that highlights her creative output for the past twenty years. Clendenin’s work is characterized by shimmering, textured surfaces imbued with spiritual imagery and personal symbols. She has crafted her own aesthetic path and achieved both regional and national attention. Influenced by the people and
landscape of West Virginia, her paintings depict one or more iridescent, simple forms - bird, dog, snake, cross, river, mountain, leaf, sun, moon, or figure - enveloped within a shimmering field of dark colors. The jewel-like surfaces of her paintings emit a sense of introspection that is reminiscent of Byzantine religious art. Clendenin’s work evokes deep emotional responses and meditative contemplation.
A native of Cedar Grove, Clendenin earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from West Virginia University. In the mid-1980’s, she developed a series of collographs, which foreshadowed her continued exploration of landscape and the human figure. These textural
hand-colored collage prints suggest the surface of a human body with scarred, stitched, flesh-tones. They also symbolize the earth with images couched in geometric mountain-like shapes.
In 1989, Clendenin began to explore the physical and psychological power of the West Virginia landscape. “I stopped fighting the mountains and let them be a big part of me and my works”. The Persona Series features the outline of mountains and anthropomorphic figures that merge, blurring the distinction between figure and landscape. The shroud-like figures emit an inner spirit that radiates outward from the surface and the surrounding landscape.
By the 1990’s, Clendenin developed two landscape series, Old Stories and West Virginia Series. Old Stories features icons and animals in a primal landscape of mountains and rivers. Recurring hieroglyphic images - eye, dog, and snake - are spiritual totems that evoke themes of death, sex and regeneration. The West Virginia series shares similar elements with Old Stories, but is clearly grounded in West Virginia’s landscape and its profusion of crosses. Interpreting evangelist Bernard Coffindaffer’s crosses that appear throughout the state, these spiritual symbols led to Clendenin’s landmark installation, Crossroads, which was exhibited at Sunrise Museum in 1995.
Clendenin’s current series Still Life (as in calm or steady life) unearths her early hieroglyphics and translates them into regenerative archeological symbols - a crescent moon positioned horizontally transforms into a vibrant vessel or container, the Persona figure morphs into an oval leaf with thriving veins. Her work elicits a determined quietude that is reassuring and presented with inventiveness that has made her art distinct.
Clendenin was a professor of art at West Virginia State University. Her survey exhibition is the second in a series presented by the Avampato Discovery Museum which highlights an artist whose work is represented in the Museum’s collection of art.
copyright 2021 paula clendenin