Charlie Clough thinks you are a genius.
Though he almost certainly hasn’t met you, the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center co-founder and restless painter who won a Guggenheim Fellowship this week after 20 years of trying holds a deep and unshakable faith in the creative potential of every human being.
He just needs you to come to his studio to unlock it.
And that’s just what a growing procession of Western New Yorkers are doing as part of Clough’s ongoing Cluffalo Painting Workshop, in which participants ranging in age from 18 months to 92 years have splashed layer after layer of house paint onto a series of canvases under Clough’s watchful eye.
On a recent Sunday morning in Clough’s small studio space on the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, 7-year-old twins Samantha and Charlotte Parsons were pouring blobs of colorful paint onto a canvas in the center of the room while their parents, Bill and Kristen Parsons, looked on. They moved the paint around the canvas with their latex-gloved hands or with tools that Clough calls “big fingers,” which are designed to produce the effect of finger painting on a larger scale and resembles the padded top of a bar stool attached to a long wooden handle.
During that morning session, the twins weren’t exactly getting along. Charlotte was happily thunking the “big finger” down into a pool of neon orange paint, sending splatters across the studio, while Samantha was upset that her sister was destroying her own artistic creations. But it’s all part of the process: The personal backgrounds and dynamics of each group that adds a layer to the painting brings it an added weight and meaning, not only for the participants but also for the viewer.
As part of his workshop, based on a process he launched in his former studio in Rhode Island, Clough creates one painting per season. At the end of each season, after dozens of contributors have added their layers to the painting, Clough takes a huge belt-sander to the canvas, strategically scratching off the paint to create a vaguely topographical abstraction with its own calculated sense of symmetry and balance. He gradually moves to finer and finer grits of sandpaper, finally arriving at 12,000-grit paper to give the painting a remarkably glassy texture that looks like the pockmarked surface of another planet.
Clough documents all the participants in the workshop and compiles their portraits and pictures of their layer in a publication. He has more than 80 publications to his name, some of which exist only in digital form and others which are self-published. (He also creates his own more gestural paintings, which he also calls “Cluffalos,” many of which are now on view in the Hamburg Public Library.)
The finished products are complex and beautiful. But their value is more than aesthetic. It’s social. It’s egalitarian and against the grain of an esoteric art world, even while remaining faithful to formalist principles. And it is diverse.
And that unique combination of factors, presumably, is what finally caught the eye of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, which awarded him an undisclosed sum of money this week (awards average around $40,000).
The award comes after decades of concerted and adventurous work by Clough, who has about 600 pieces in more than 70 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art. One of his first major statements as an artist in Buffalo was to surreptitiously install a giant bright orange arrow on the side of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1972. Later, he moved to New York City as did his Hallwalls comrades Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman to chase after a larger art career.
Though Clough achieved a measure of success most working artists rarely do, his star never rose quite as high as Longo’s and Sherman’s. Nonetheless, over several decades, he developed a style of painting utterly unique to him. That style, a smart synthesis of previously separate art-world silos, was concerned as much with building upon the formal inventiveness of the Abstract Expressionists he first saw at the Albright-Knox as with a more brainy interest in art history and theory. The social impulse emerged later, with his first large-scale public painting event held at Artpark in 1992, an approach he repeated four years ago in the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery parking lot, Canalside and elsewhere in connection with a major UB retrospective, and in a recent public art project in Hamburg.
For Clough, who moved his studio to Buffalo in 2011 and now splits his time between here and a 600-square-foot apartment in New York City, his collaborative painting project is about widening the appeal of abstract art.
“As a kid, I’d go to the Albright-Knox and I’d think, anybody could do that, I could do that,” he said. “Which is one of the things this is about.”
The collaborative painting sessions, he said, “are about building a context, and I’m hoping that these people’s experience lights up periodically through their lifetimes. You go to a museum, you see a great big crazy painting and you go, ‘Oh yeah, I was involved in something like that.’”
E. Frits Abell, who founded the Echo Art Fair and was instrumental in enticing Clough to get involved in the city’s art scene, praised his work and his return as a crucial ingredient in the city’s ongoing cultural revival.
“It it was incredibly timely and appropriate that he decided to come home when he did. It was 2011, when Buffalo was really starting to hit its stride and the creative scene was really exploding,” Abell said. His re-establishment locally is “great for Buffalo and I think equally great for Charlie to be viewed as so esteemed and such a big deal. When you’re in New York, it’s kind of hard to feel like a big deal, no matter how much success you have.”
Clough said he hopes to turn his East Aurora studio into a “tourist attraction” that would draw many people into his orbit to participate in his seasonal paintings, in the same way he visited the studios of Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning and Sol LeWitt when he was a young artist. His work will be featured in a show opening at the end of April in Art Helix, an artist-run space in Brooklyn.
“The show I have in New York is sort of a back door back into the bigger art world. I don’t know if that door will open further,” said Clough, who is still clearly concerned with amping up his currently low-level art world fame. “Coming back here and realizing that I’ve got more than 600 works in more than 70 museums … I realized that in fact I became what I wanted to become. Whether it gets any better than this, in some ways I don’t care.”
But he does care. And so he should, given his project’s potential to open up the art world to new audiences young and old.
“I think that we’re all geniuses,” he said. “And the way that you make that genius thing happen is by making artwork. So there.”