2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Wesley Clark about his centennial commission, genesis.
After countless delays due to labor and supply chain shortages, a new installation is emerging from the walls of Phillips@THEARC. At first glance, it might seem as though Wesley Clark’s centennial commission, genesis, is moving—emerging and retracting, weaving in and out of the walls of the workshop space. This piece closes out our centennial celebration as the final of three site-specific commissions by DC-based artists. The first two were completed by Victor Ekpuk and Nekisha Durrett.
Clark’s commission is the only one located at Phillips@THEARC, our satellite workshop and gallery space in Southeast DC at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC). Due to Covid-19, it has been a quiet past few years at THEARC, making genesis a welcomed new addition and burst of energy. The vibrant colors of the geometric node-like forms that Clark describes as “creative seedlings” immediately draw your attention in the lobby of THEARC West. But that’s only the beginning. Upon entering the Phillips@THEARC workshop space, the geometric forms transform into something much more organic, almost like the branches or roots of a tree.
“It became a mix of the geometric and some more organic forms and it kind of brought a whole new feel and life to it, to be more about this intersection between our everyday physical life being organic and our digital life being the more geometric aspects,” shared Clark. “But also this blossoming or blooming or bubbling up of creative ideas is really what the whole piece is kind of about. Like birthing, being at the start of birthing ideas and creativity.”
Similar to the root-like structure bursting from the nodes as one moves from the lobby to the workshop, THEARC has community partners all throughout the building, from Children’s National Health Center to Bishop Walker School for Boys. But at the core of those off-shooting branches is the community at the center–where we come together to gather, to enter, to begin. “The lobby is like the bulb from which everything grows in a building,” said Clark.
If you get close enough to the piece, you may be able to decipher the names of some of the neighborhoods in Southeast surrounding the Parklands community that THEARC calls home. Akin to how Victor Ekpuk’s installation displays symbols for the audience to decode, Clark utilizes graffiti-style tags to communicate. A big fan of graffiti and street art as a kid, he found himself drawn to the medium in his studio practice as a tool for mark-making.
“I incorporate it a lot into the work I do. In this work, the colorful sections are like a lot of the tagging and what not,” said Clark. “It’s a very interesting mark-making situation, a script.” A script known as the visual element that accompanied the birth of hip hop, created by predominantly Black and Brown youth seeking ways to claim space in quickly-evolving New York City during the 1970s in response to racial and economic injustice. Tagging became a way for people to claim space that once belonged to them.
The graffiti tags may remind some of abandoned industrial buildings or train cars, but for others it’s a language that’s understandable in the community–a form of creativity first born out of rebellion. Clark appropriates that graffiti-style and mixes it with the organic staining of the wood, combining the artificial and organic, industrial and natural, new and old. The work reflects his additive and subtractive process that includes adding paint and filing it off, repeating the process until a piece feels finished. genesis is materially and aesthetically filled with juxtapositions and contradictions that reflect the complexity of asking what community looks like in our continuously changing world.