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Clough love; Buffalo native brings his work back to hometown

Buffalo's art scene is in the midst of a back-to-the-future moment.

The outside of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery looks a lot like it did in 1972, when a mischievous young artist named Charles Clough "decorated" the gallery wall with a bright orange arrow. That arrow has been rebuilt and reinstalled as part of the Albright-Knox's important historical survey "Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s."

In Amherst, in the University at Buffalo's Art Gallery, the '70s are also alive and well. The gallery is now hosting "The Way to Cluffalo," a compact retrospective exhibition of work by the ambitious Clough, who co-founded Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center and played a vital role in the seething cultural life of Buffalo as a young artist.

This exhibition provides the perfect opportunity for Buffalonians to reacquaint themselves with Clough's work or to come face-to-face with it for the first time. That's because Clough, who has spent the past 13 years working in a small studio in Waverly, R.I., is slowly bringing his art practice back to his native city.

Since late last year, Clough has spent about one week a month in Buffalo working on projects and establishing his new studio in the Hi-Temp Fabrication building on Perry Street in the Cobblestone District.

Part of "The Way to Cluffalo," as Clough envisions it, is to establish a well-oiled artistic production studio in Buffalo for his large-scale paintings, reproductions, books and films of his ever-evolving work. This latest phase in Clough's lifelong artistic project to bring his gestural abstractions to the masses in new ways, seeks to do nothing less than rebrand Buffalo in his own vibrant hues -- to blanket the city in Cluffalove.

As Clough sees it, Buffalo made him into an artist. Now he is out to return the favor by remaking Buffalo in his own image.

Whatever one might think of the audacity of such a plan, it's tough not to admire the singular vision Clough has maintained across a long and fruitful career. This UB Art Gallery show makes this an easy task by summarizing a career's worth of beautiful projects that subtly prod viewers to think about what they're looking at in new, larger and sometimes uncomfortable ways.

Clough, not unlike his friends and fellow Hallwalls habitues Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, seemed to chart a course for his entire artistic career fairly early on. He calls his lifelong project -- take a breath for this one -- "The Photographic Epic of a Painter as a Film or a Ghost." Without delving too deeply into art jargon, this essentially means that Clough sees his body of work as containing far more than just the paintings he creates. The "work" of art, also includes photographs and videos of the painting process, the tools used to create it and, finally, Clough himself.

Were Clough's paintings not so consistently seductive, so utterly aware of their job to draw in and overwhelm the viewer, this would be easy enough to discount as yet another yawn-inducing conceptual flight of fancy.

But nearly all of Clough's gestural abstractions swirl with vibrant colors, arranged with a refined sense of symmetry, an expert control over visual textures and a sense of the exquisite balance between chaos and order required to make the brain stick to the work like Velcro.

"I'm interested in an art unafraid of the look of art," Clough has said, according to Sandra Q. Firmin's catalog essay. "I prefer that my own work be powered by desire rather than guilt."

The desire is there in Clough's early "C-Notes" works, which force the viewer to look intently by layering many applications of paint over prints of paintings by old masters and artists like Charles Burchfield. It's there in works like 1979's "PAA and WDK," in which menacing eyes sit atop manic columns of color, gazing out like miniature Saurons to make sure gallerygoers are behaving themselves. And it's definitely there in Clough's mammoth "Big-Finger" paintings of the mid-'80s, for which Clough invented his own tool to push around the paint and to create intensely alluring studies in light and color, giant cosmic fingerprints that evoke larger-than-life phenomena.

Equally intriguing is Clough's more recent cross-media work, in which a single canvas is painted, scraped, repainted and photographed thousands of times to produce a video work that attempts to include the entire process of creation rather than just the end product.

In Clough's vision, there is really no such thing as an "end product." There is just the process, presented as alluringly and in as many innovative configurations as his active imagination can dream up. That the latest of these involves a studio near the Buffalo waterfront is an exciting prospect, both for the city's increasingly diverse art scene and for the next phase of Clough's career.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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"Charles Clough: The Way to Cluffalo"    

WHEN: Through May 19    

WHERE: University at Buffalo Art Gallery, UB North Campus, Amherst    

TICKETS: Free    

INFO: 645-6913 or www.ubartgalleries.org