Through the Stained-Glass | Brian Clarke

As part of mandatory art history class in college, I went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. A school trip was always fun, even though it sometimes meant spending 75 minutes in the subway, traveling all the way to the Morningside Heights from Clinton Hill. Nonetheless, I was particularly enthusiastic about visiting the cathedral for a multitude of reasons.  The cathedral housed the largest rose window in the United States. The gigantic piece of stained glass was quite awe-inspiring, especially up close. Seeing the natural light passing through the glass and filling up the church with every conceivable color on the rainbow was astounding and borderline overwhelming. Luckily, I took the vertical behind-the-scenes tour where I could really work up an appetite by climbing 124 feet through a staircase and fully appreciate the grandeur of the stained glass while standing on a buttress on top of the world’s largest cathedral. Since then, I absolutely love stained glass. I even purchased a 9-dollar window film from Amazon that can supposedly mimic a similar prismatic effect so that I could feel like I woke up in a cathedral surrounded by rose windows and not in a twin bed in Bushwick.

This week, I visited the Museum of Art and Design to see the British artist Brian Clarke’s immersive exhibition, including more than 100 works of stained glass, lead compositions, and related drawings. Anyone interested in architectural arts knows that he is the apotheosis of prolificacy. The Shard, his unexecuted collaboration with Renzo Piano, has always been one of my favorite concepts of his due to its sheer volumetric demeanor. Similarly, his partnership with the architect and Pritzker Prize laureate Arata Isozaki has always been a timeless testimonial of what light and architecture can evoke. On a different note, the general public most likely knows him with his design of Paul McCartney’s iconic album cover, Tug of War.

Falling Water by Brian Clarke
Order & Chaos by Brian Clarke

When I saw his series named The Screens, I immediately noticed the miscellany of East and West. An invention of East Asia, interior screens have been part of the western domestic design traditions for quite some time. I use one besides my windows instead of curtain panels because they do not get dirty and look great as a Zoom background. Coming back to the exhibit, Clarke’s implementation of one of the most traditional Eurocentric art traditions on the screens was rather entrancing to see in person. Even though it was fascinating to witness Vacillation by William Butler Yeats, the poem investigating the source of happiness and its palpable connection to grief, or stock exchange graphs on stained glass, my favorite screens were undoubtedly the ones that delivered the most vibrant light reflections. Order and Chaos juxtaposed a brick wall with abstracted blue leaves, creating a beautiful light play of purples and violets. Blue Computergram followed a similar color story, but the geometric rigidity of the pattern was a nice contrast to the organic nature of the medium.

Looking at the exhibit from a different perspective, I felt that the museum did not fully take advantage of its location. The museum had terrific views of the Columbus Circle and Central Park; however, all the light play was created with artificial lighting. The windows were almost entirely closed off. I unintentionally compared the displays to Raul De Nieves’s site-specific stained glass work I experienced at The 2017 Whitney Biennale. Apart from being the artwork itself, his stained glass work not only created a vivid backdrop to his elaborate sculptures, but also fully utilized its location, providing a unique perspective to the charming streets of Chelsea. I would love to see Central Park through Clarke’s breathtaking screens!

Remembering the 124 feet of spiral stairs I had to power through to see the stained glasses of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I think I am still incapable of fully comprehending the possibilities of this medium. The next time I am in the Morningside heights enjoying a poppy strudel and thinking of that 1994 Mariah concert, I will think of Clarke’s words on stained glass: “There is a world that can only be seen through stained glass. It is like no other. The range of experience I can deliver through it is greater than anything I’ve known in my life.”

Words by
Mustafa Yiğit Ecer
April 6, 2021
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