Conditions under COVID-19 have provided welcome encouragement for me to develop skills and perform less customary tasks, mainly in the realm of technology. Many visual artists, galleries and museums are adapting, devising innovative ways of displaying art and reaching audiences online.
Others seem less concerned with making big changes, adopting an “if it ain’t broke” approach, if you will. I caught up with Steve Clark, owner of Stephen L. Clark Gallery, about what’s going on with him and the gallery since this all went down.
Having been in business for 26 years, Clark has proved he’s resilient.
Since Governor Abbott loosened restrictions on retail businesses in May, like a lot of gallerists Clark opened on a by appointment-only basis. Currently he’s showing work by Australian native, one-time Austinite and now-resident of Tucson, Kate Breakey.
Clark makes a spot on the calendar nearly every year for Breakey. And it’s no wonder: “Kate never misses,” he says.
Known for photographs of dead and dying flora and fauna, Breakey’s work addresses themes of death and transformation. When I fearfully confronted a dead bird on my patio many years ago, I told someone I had to “channel my inner Kate Breakey,” in order to gently dispose of it.
Not only does Breakey’s courage handling deceased subjects impress, but for photophiles, her facility in hand-coloring and creating luminous effects is admired. “I paint… in many transparent layers of oil paint and pencil,” she has explained. “If I am lucky, the media combine and become enmeshed, a curious union of what was real with my own exaggerations and embellishments.”
Breakey’s latest group of work features mostly flowers in vases, in various stages of life. Some blooms still stand, others droop or even wither. Heavy dark frames add to their Victorian memento mori appeal.
When asked how the work’s being received, Clark says, “Sales have actually been decent under the circumstances. We won’t have an opening but will put it online likely with video at some point.”
Clark has maintained a steady success given his gallery’s lack of internet presence. And while he’s put the gallery on ArtNet, he doesn’t see Instagram, or other social media and websites being that fruitful. Clark is just one of those folks who knows his strengths, and does a really good job in his own particular lane.
Clark proudly tells me about the latest addition to his family, his 3-month old grandson Clayton, named after Clark’s grandfather.
“We have been very ‘COVID careful.’ We go to the kids’ houses and sit on the tailgates having a beer and watching the grandkids in the yard. We were able to hold Clayton for the first couple of weeks, but not since.”
Family and friends also know Clark loves fishing. “We go out to a private lake and fish but in separate canoes. So we get together at a distance.”
Speaking of friends, Clark’s longtime landlord was celebrated photographer and filmmaker, Bill Wittliff (1940-2019). Clark and Wittliff not only shared the space — a 19th c. house in Old West Austin — but also a number of interests, most of all photography. In fact, many of the photographers in The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University overlap with ones Clark has represented over the years.
And though his friend may be gone, Clark says he’ll keep his gallery on the first floor of the old building: “The Wittliff family has said that we will continue as before”
“We are selling Bill’s work printed by his assistant and long-time printer Joe Pat Davis with estate stamp and Bill’s chop. These include his photographs from ‘Lonesome Dove,’ ‘Tragaluces’ (made using a pinhole camera) and ‘Solargraphs’ (made using a beer can pinhole camera).”
This is good news. And another reminder that sometimes simpler, more traditional methods and an “if it ain’t broke” attitude can produce exceptional results.
“Kate Breakey: Black Tulips & Dead Flowers” will continue until mid-September. An exhibition of work by artist Lance Letscher opens in October; date to be announced.
Stephen L. Clark Gallery is located at 1101 W. Sixth St. Call for an appointment: 512-477-0828.