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“I’m the Fire”: The “Thrilling” Participatory Art of Charlie Clough

Author: Dianne Bennett

Clough delights in working with layers. ​

Charlie Clough, perhaps the best-known artist living in Western New York, is a self-described hermit crab who has found his shell on the early 1900s Roycroft Campus (specifically, the print shop) in East Aurora. The Ashford Hollow Foundation, founded by Larry Griffis and operated out of old icehouse buildings on Essex Street in Buffalo in the 1970s, was another shell for Clough: “At Ashford Hollow, I was a hermit crab and it was a shell. I used their structure as a context, as I do here—a national historical landmark. Is there a fire going on? I’m the fire. And I felt that I was at Ashford Hollow too.”

Clough is willing to share that fire. He’s been engaged in participatory art since he—with Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman and others—founded Hallwalls in 1974. The most vibrant phase of Clough’s collaborative work is the “Seasons” project he started in 2015. Anyone can come to his studio and paint over the paintings of other participants, creating layers that, at the end of the season, Clough will grind down into his painting. 

(L-R) The layer of the “Autumn 2021” painting the author started with. | Almost finished: the author works on her layer​.
One of the completed “Seasons” book​s.

There’s no charge to add your layer of paint. Clough monetizes the project through selling the final painting (4 have sold and one has been given to the New York State Museum in Albany). You can also buy the book of your “Season,” which includes a photo Clough takes of you and the painting after you add your layer (you’ll never see that layer again). He takes pride in the spines of his Seasons books that occupy one of the shelves behind his desk.

Clough has a box full of painted-o​ver reproductions. Vandalism? Probably not.

Clough has been known to paint over other works. He pointed to a box full of his paintings done on top of reproductions, some famous, most unrecognizable. “They’re either photos or two photos collaged—or archival reproductions that I fingerpaint on top of. And then my idea is I photograph them and blow them up large and then fingerpaint on the photographic enlargement….That was a step, an evolution that started in ‘70 or ‘71,” said Clough. “It could be seen as vandalism,” he added, “but they are reproductions.” 

Another example of Clough’s recent collaboration is that with photographer William Graebner. Graebner presented Clough with 6 of his “found art” photos (the two men had been communicating via Facebook and email on the proposed project), chosen by Graebner without Clough’s consultation, and then Clough painted on them. The results are spectacular. “Restraint,” Clough said, “was the hardest part.” (Some of the signed “Clough on Graebner” works will be donated to charity auctions.)

Other collaborations include an Albright-Knox-supported work involving students at the Hamburg Public Library (now on permanent loan there). This collaboration began, as he described it, “in 1985 when I started using the ‘big finger’ tools [rather than brushes]. I had a show at the Brooklyn Museum, and I thought—there is that cliché about ‘my kid can do that,’ and I wanted to literalize it. Yes, absolutely, engage, do, and in the process you might find you have a talent for it, or you don’t enjoy it, and I saw this as a doorway into a type of experience.”

(L-R) Graebner’s original photo, found art from a West Side trash can. | Clough’s finished painting, painted over Graebner’s photo: Clough on Graebner

Clough may be channeling his inner Elbert Hubbard as well, perhaps as another form of collaboration, though Clough sees Hubbard less as an artist than as an ideological entrepreneur. Waving his hand around the 100+ year old stone walls of his environment, Clough says, “that this campus was built from Hubbard’s entrepreneurship of progressivism—it’s just too cool.” According to Clough, Hubbard’s contribution to the arts and crafts movement of his time was an ideological one, grounded in the reformist values of the Progressive Era. In contrast, Clough’s approach to painting emerged more gradually, and through experience. “I didn’t identify with people at high school [Hutch Tech in Buffalo], I didn’t identify with people at Pratt Art School [in New York City]. But at Pratt, I started to make these connections through exhibitions and reading about specific artists. And those identifications gave me my values and a way to be. I can go into [their identity] and take what I want. And then for me here, that is a social resource… people come in and talk—it’s not like schools, I’m not teaching an agenda. It’s just my opinions; they’re obvious in the work. And if I can engage on that level, it gives me pleasure.”

[Cough]’s been engaged in participatory art since he—with Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman and others—founded Hallwalls in 1974.

Starting with Larry Griffis on Essex St., Clough recalls, “Griffis didn’t have a clear agenda for 30 Essex Street—he wanted it to be an art center and wanted it to be supported by rent—and it worked, and the fact that the artists were together in some critical mass made Hallwalls happen and the Artists’ Committee that followed. And I’ve seen that happen here—I’ve heard people talk about it [the Roycroft Campus] being a vortex [for various kinds of thought and experience]: New Age, whatever that means, and Native Americans being on that site—that might be b.s.—but that mythology is worth encouraging. And if I can be a part of that….”  “And—weird circumstances—my mother was a block away and she needed help. I either had to go to New York and spend too much for too little or come here.”

All that serendipity has been to Western New York’s benefit. “The fact that my studio is on this particular site,” says Clough, “that has extra meaning. I can sense it, hear it, in memory of—not in any supernatural way—not even a memory of Hubbard but a memory of what I’ve read about him that gives a spirit—you know the Qi, the breath going through. I sense that, and it gives me sort of a figure to follow.”

Clough admires and envies his fellow Hallwalls artists who’ve made millions and achieved international recognition. “Jealousy, that’s part of it,” he says of those early collaborators. “On many different levels; they’re talented—I know a lot of talented people; they’re also lucky. I don’t know as many talented people who are also lucky—there’s that. I’m glad they’re there, because I get some coattails to hang onto, and it totally works. You asked the question about economics—I never know where I stand.” Disconcerting words from an artist whose works are in the permanent collection of 70 museums around the world, has had more than 70 solo shows, and has received many awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim.

Some of the layers are hanging in plain sight.

Where he stands as 2021 draws to a close is, Clough says, in a “thrilling…pitch of productivity.” In addition to his Seasons work and collaborations such as that at the Hamburg Public Library, he has his Chromafest, which is an intense, relatively brief period of work for him: “I was developing my work at McKendry’s [John McKendry, who brought Clough back to Buffalo with the offer of studio space in the Cobblestone District in 2013], and then I brought it here. It started out really slowly, but I’ve come up with this Chromafest idea where I produce like crazy. I’ve done 3 of them, 2 up in Hunter Hall and one down here [his basement studio space]. I have this idea of optimal productivity, which would mean the greatest amount of materials, the greatest amount of space to be working in, and–what else?time. I like it to be ongoing, every day. That’s difficult. So in being here, I’ve developed this sense of time—of familiarity—it seems weird it would take so long to habituate, but I’m at a pitch of productivity that is just thrilling, and I want to keep that going.”

In being here, I’ve developed this sense of time—of familiarity—it seems weird it would take so long to habituate, but I’m at a pitch of productivity that is just thrilling, and I want to keep that going.

“Charlie,” writes art historian Jonathan Katz, “is most known for the lush physicality of his painting….Energetic, sensuous and often joyous. His magisterial painting stands askance to what we often think of as the Buffalo style.” Katz might have added, “he’s on fire.”

Contact Clough through his Web site, clufff.com, by calling 646-283-6964, or just showing up at the Workshop, where he is most days:  Room 120, 21 South Grove Street, East Aurora, NY.


Charlie Clough at his studio on the Roycroft ​Campus, with books from two projects, including the Hamburg Library. The spines of which he is proud are in back of him.

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