Love, loss and transformation

Meet the Artist: Tiffany Allyn Clark

By Eva Buttacavoli

Photo: Artist Tiffany Allyn Clark

There’s this particular thing about some painters and their “ground.” Ground is defined as the first coat of paint applied to the surface of a piece. Mostly called priming today, its purpose is to provide a smooth surface that can be easily painted upon. The Dutch artists like Vermeer often used double grounds, consisting of chalk and ochre (red or yellow), which were subsequently covered with a thin coat of light grey, creating a “Rayleigh scattering” effect. (According to Philip Gibbs at the University of California, Riverside, “A clear cloudless day-time sky is blue because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light.”)

Sexy, surreal or macabre at first glance, Tiffany Allyn Clark makes sure her figures stun, intrigue or slightly repel you. But once you settle in, they’re all about that ground.

“I start with a brighter color underneath, whatever color I want to shimmer from under the main background color,” Clark explained. “After it’s dried thoroughly, I turn the painting upside down and drip linseed oil-stained paint. I would call it painting or staining, but there’s so much linseed oil. I do this over and over till I get drips and color that I like. Then, as it’s close to dry but still wet, I wipe it away. If it’s not just this shimmering wash the figures float upon, then it’s the repeating tone-on-tone brocade pattern of this one particular chair.”

This chair, a comfy upholstered side chair she and her late boyfriend and artistic collaborator shared in their home, and this pattern, have become the reference, touchstone and “ground” for her figures.

Now. About those “figures.” They are at times hurried and scratchy or have some details painstakingly rendered and some details missing – like rough drafts. At times, they’re vulgar, awkward, bound and bent at almost impossible angles. At times, they look like they were cut out from some other scene and plopped right down onto a new one.

Now put that ground and those figures together and this is where it all happens. Clark has a gift for combining painting and sketching; for combining luminous color with contrasts between harsh light and deep shadows; and for combining charged figures with banal settings.

Her technique was inspired by her love of printmaking, specifically Chine-collé, and a desire to translate the spontaneous quality of images created in her sketchbooks. Like artists before her who used photographs as raw material and then computers to edit them, enhance or organize the various elements, Clark employs a complex system of tracing and retracing elements onto the paper or canvas to create their scenarios. This often results in a composite of many separate observations, as well as imaginary effects. The process, whether done by hand or by computer, is painstaking and requires constant acceptance and rejection.

Painter Eric Fischl believes, in using this process, each decision has “an existential complexity that’s almost life threatening.” “For me,” he said, “those are all decisions that are dramatic decisions. They’re based on trying to establish a condition, and having that condition be at its most pregnant, its most meaningful at the moment I stopped the action.”

Love, loss and transformation are not just some of Clark’s narrative themes. They are her life.

Born and raised in Fairborn, Ohio, with an early knack for graphic design, she was first encouraged by Nevin Mercede at Antioch College to experiment with monotypes. Soon, she partnered up with Dayton artist, Stivers ceramic teacher and theremin musician Jason Dryden. They spent three years filled with prolific bursts of creativity together, making pottery and sculpting in their Front Street Studio; making music with Jason’s Sleepybird bandmates; helping to organize and participating in alternative art shows, including the “Fruit for the Egg” Stivers fundraiser and the Dayton Circus’ Sideshows 2 and 3.Then, suddenly, in May 2010, Jason died of an accidental drug overdose. Life got worse before it got better.

In 2013, Clark emerged clean, pounds slimmer, with a new baby and the attention of longtime friends and Toxic Brewery owners and operators, Patrick and Jason Hindson and Shane Juhl, who invited Clark to take over the bar with her latest collages and assemblages. Her work had taken some dark turns, but lines got more assured, shadows got sharper and decisions carried more confidence.

Clark currently has a small show up at Square One Salon and Spa in downtown Dayton through Nov. 15 and will be part of two-person show at Rosewood Arts Centre from June 29-July 24, 2015.

I visited Clark one late afternoon in early October in her home filled with art, friends, children, sketches, paper and remnants of Jason. We talked about filmmaker Kevin Smith’s podcast, making peace with yourself and the time we first met years ago during a Sleepybird performance.

How many years have been working as an artist?

I’ve drawn every day since first grade. – Tiffany Allyn Clark

Tell me about your typical studio day.

I’m a single mom. I sketch at night in the kitchen … – TAC

How do you choose your subject matter?

Song lyrics. Words or phrases I write down. Snippets of what I’m thinking. Feelings I have to get out. – TAC

Who are you influenced by?

When I was a kid, H.R. Giger. Early on, the surrealist Dorothea Tanning. Now mostly Eric Fischl, and Janet Fish for the way she paints light with blocks of color. – TAC

What’s your favorite material to work with?

Oil. It’s not my best work, but I love the sexy, wet translucency of it. Plus, it’s forgiving. – TAC

Do you prefer to work in music or silence?

It’s never quiet in here. Music gives me energy. I like my music like I like my people and my art: complicated. – TAC

Who is your favorite contemporary artist?

Tyler Peffley. I love his sketchy lines and how he can transfer emotion just through those lines. – TAC

If you could only have one piece of art in your life, what would it be?

This piece of Jason’s pottery (points to a large blue “pocket” pot on the dresser). – TAC

A Dayton transplant from Austin, Texas, via Miami, Fla. and Brooklyn, New York, Eva is Executive Director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. A curator and arts administrator for over 23 years, she previously served as the first executive director of FilmDayton; the curator/ director of exhibitions and education at the Austin Museum of Art and the director of education at the Miami Art Museum. You can reach her at EvaButtacavoli@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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