The Surreal Drive-by: Stephen J Clark

I always used to look at Tartarus Press covers and wonder idly about the lovely, creepy illustrations on the covers. Then I got the illustration for the cover of my very own Tartarus book andI learned where a lot of them came from – Stephen J Clark. His website is here.

Not only is he an artist of rare and disturbing talent, Stephen is also a writer of rare disturbing talent. His latest book, The Bestiary of Communion, will be out in April. As part of my series of drive-bys of Englishmen called ‘Stephen’, I present Stephen J Clark.

1. What’s the attraction of Surrealism?
Perhaps it’s all down to my fascination with the unconscious and exploring its place in the world: the idea that through certain methods, such as automatism, one can develop a dialogue with latent, neglected aspects of the mind and so engage with neglected possibilities of the world. A keystone of surrealist thinking is that reality is polysemous, that it has concealed facets if we learn how to look. So in my drawing and writing I’m not concerned chiefly with how something is crafted or whether something works aesthetically. The emphasis is on the process of discovery or revelation and what that means to me personally.

For me it’s to do with a dialectic process between the imaginary and the real, using the imagination as a tool of experience and understanding, using the imagination to question, explore and transform life, to delve into the unconscious and methodically disturb habitual ways of experiencing and understanding. So while surrealism strongly informs how and why I draw and write, my involvement with surrealist activity is not limited to my art or fiction.

For me surrealist activity has a great deal to do with other people, with friends and collaborators. Surrealist activity is nothing if not collective, for example I’m taking part in an exhibition organised by the Czech & Slovak surrealist group later this year where participants have been invited to explore objects observed or encountered in their dreams. These experiences will be documented as evidence and where possible the objects will be constructed by individual participants. As well as exhibiting to the public, the gathering will then provide an opportunity for everyone involved to share and examine the findings of this research. As part of this I’ve been invited to document my own creative method, scanning images at successive stages as I draw and paint. Apart from the element of play there’s a vital critical dynamic in surrealist activity, to examine and explore the phenomena of the unconscious mind and the imagination in a methodical and concrete way. Collective activity widens the scope, it opens up exchange and dialogue between a great range of individual perspectives on these matters.

2. You must choose between art and writing: which one wins? Or do you implode, unable to decide?
I guess an implosion of that sort might be worth exhibiting or publishing.

Although as I’ve been drawing and painting almost every day for a very long time, to the extent that it’s become second nature to engage in that activity I’d have to say right now I can afford to concentrate on writing and feel compelled to do so. My approach to drawing is visceral. It’s to do with silence, with silencing and rupturing language and allowing the unconscious space to manifest. Writing fiction tends to be a meditative and far more conscious craft for me, whereas my drawing tends to have a sensual immediacy.

3. What is the essential ingredient in any strange tale?
Disturbance. By that I don’t mean merely fear or repulsion but the poetic disordering of the reader’s habits of experiencing and understanding.  I see it as a form of seduction or initiation, of being slowly coaxed into seeing the world in another way if only for a moment. I value those stories that linger afterwards, that leave your habitual ways of thinking shaken in some way – stories that disturb and re-enchant our sense of reality. For me, any fiction worth its salt is a secret game of empathy and trust between the story and the reader. And in saying this I mean the writer is not excluded from that sense of disturbance or entirely in control of it. So disturbance might inform the process as well as the reception of the story.

4. How do your art and writing inform/influence each other?
Quite often I think my drawings have a narrative element, which does for instance play some part in providing a title. In some ways I see my drawings as a moment in a drama, where the preceding and subsequent events are left open, yet are charged with suggestion. So in a sense my writing arises from thinking about that to an extent. In some senses it’s a matter of surrendering to what I’m being shown or told by those other ‘voices’ in my subconscious and seeing where they will take me. That’s a common ground shared by my writing and art. It’s a form of play and perhaps a form of initiation.

Yet I’d have to emphasise that drawing, for me, largely resists words, it tends to thrive in a place that defies language. I engaged with this notion in a book (The Bridge of Shadows) involving my poems and my friend Bill Howe’s photographs – the idea that there exists a dynamic of attraction and repulsion between visual images and language, not just in art but life generally. I don’t see my art as a way of illustrating my words. I see it in terms of a dialogue whereby a visual image might arise out the silence where words fail. An image might be measured by how much it silences, or at least silences the discursive mind and opens one up to analogical thinking. I do think it involves a hidden relationship, the interplay between how we see and how we speak. I tried to grasp this in the use of drawings in my novella The Satyr where the drawings play some part in the narrative itself rather than simply being illustrative. Given that I feel I didn’t quite succeed in what I’d fully intended with that book I want to explore that possibility further, the idea that a drawing could intervene in the story in a playful and enigmatic way. Amongst other things, I’m currently mulling over ideas along those lines.

5. Donuts (or doughnuts) or danishes?

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