Brian Clarke, a visiting professor of Architectural Art at University College London, is described in the Sainsbury Centre programme as “one of the most important artists working in stained glass”, and his designs has decorated a wide variety of buildings from the Pfizer World Headquarters in New York to The Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. On his website, Clarke claims “stained glass has the potential to contribute to the urban fabric of the 21st century as successfully as it did to the 15th.” Deemed one of the most important artists working within his field, the architectural artist’s famous glass screens has now been installed at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of museum.

My first impression of the screens is that they look like large, alluring folding boards. The meaning behind the title of the exhibition, “The Art of Light”, becomes evident as you move between Clarke’s stained glass screens and view them from different angles. Strategically placed in an around the permanent collection in the East End and the Mezzanine Gallery, the coloured glass seems to glow in the half-light. Although not helped by the dull grey sky outside, the natural light that flows through the large windows appears to make the glass shift around and change colour. Several of the screens depict water and underwater creatures, reminding us of how glass is, as stated in the programme, a barely static “super-cooled liquid” that responds to the changing light. The exhibition takes its name not from the installations themselves, but from what they reflect.

As you gain an overview of the different screens it becomes clear how the motifs contrast with each other. The large shapes and popping colours make you think of tropical forests and lush greenery, but Clarke’s use of natural imagery often appears suggestive; why do the screens named “Petals” and “Rippling water” look like white blood cells? How come the most muted screen, a simple forest green background covered with dark green swirls, bear the apocalyptic title “World without beginning”? The screen called “Order and chaos”, depicting a red brick wall that is being overtaken by blue flowers provides some answers; Clarke seems to be examining the clash between order and chaos, between nature and man’s attempt to control it. Several screens present us with nature in geometrical form; flocks of birds and clusters of florals create beautiful patterns and casts long colourful shades on the grey carpet. The next screen is equally geometrical but made up entirely of binary numerals. It is called “The illusion of logic.”

As you move between the screens you continue to find man-made concepts in the stained glass jungle. One striking installation depicts the iconic image of a nuclear mushroom cloud in twelve brightly coloured versions. Its title, “Manhattan”, confirms the pop-arty and Andy Warhol-like first impression; Clarke has made the atomic bomb New York-cool. The piece “Wall Street” lists the value of gold and soybean meals side by side on the stained glass screen. A screen showing humans skulls lined up on something that looks like shelves, is simply called “Chill out”, and is the only piece that does not reflect the light. It is the natural body versus technology; it’s urban life against death. If your aim is to make stained glass as pertinent in the 21st century as it was in the 15th, this is the way to do it.

Brian Clarke: The Art of Light is on at the Sainsbury Centre until 14 October.


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