Marna Clarke sheds light on aging

Marna Clarke
Pieces like "Bernie" show Clarke's grasp of the power of chiaroscuro—portraiture's age-old gravitas.   

In her 2011 memoir “Blue Nights,” Joan Didion writes, “Aging and its evidence remain life’s most predictable events, yet they also remain matters we prefer to leave unmentioned, unexplored.” Inverness artist Marna Clarke takes a nuanced and unflinching look at this event in “Autumn,” her solo exhibition at Gallery Route One. The show, featuring 20 color photographs, highlights not only Clarke’s skills as a portraitist, but her ability to create images that feel timeless. The pictures span 13 years, from 2006 to 2019, so the exhibition doubles as a poignant elegy to those members of the community who have passed on. 

“I think it’s my way of handling my own aging,” Clarke, now 78, says of her project. Her refusal to overly aestheticize or objectify the ravages of aging clearly comes from someone intimately familiar with its pains and rewards.  

Many of Clarke’s subjects are fellow West Marin artists, pictured surrounded by their work or by nature. The most straightforward environmental portraits provide telling details about her subjects’ life and interests, and while it’s delightful to see famed Shrinky Dink artist Andrew Romanoff leather vested, bare-chested and regal at his desk of paints, the most compelling pictures are those shaped and controlled by light. They show Clarke’s understanding of the power of chiaroscuro, of what is revealed and obscured, known and unknowable—portraiture’s age-old gravitas. 

Several images feel influenced by the history of painting, and even seem to carry a hint of allegory. Marina, born in 1938, glances back into the darkness over her shoulder with one hand clasped to the edge of a flowered shirt, at once the old woman and the maiden. Murray, born in 1942,  has one eye cast in shadow and fleshy, cupid’s-bow lips on the verge of delivering news we must hear, whether we like it or not. A flicker of light filters through orchid blooms and settles on the white hair of Deb, born in 1948, quietly knitting in her domestic enclosure—a scene that recalls the Dutch interiors of Vermeer. Bernie, born in 1946, stares back at us via a slice of light cast through venetian blinds. He anchors the room, a presence to be felt rather than understood. 

“Sometimes you can feel very alone getting older,” Clarke says, but spending time with her subjects makes her feel less so. There is only one couple depicted in the series, Joe and Mo, both born in Africa, and they stand out for  a tremendous close-cropped composition that renders their lined faces at once flat and as solid as statues. Their tenderness is both delicate and impenetrable. 

Down the wall, Igor—Clarke’s partner and most frequent subject, born in 1929—appears supine on Hog Island, awkwardly propped up on one elbow, holding out a sketch of the bare and scraggly landscape with his free hand. The image feels like a self-portrait within a portrait—an echo of Clarke’s effort to depict the coming of winter, to make a record that is personal. 

Taken as a whole, “Autumn” feels as much about place as about people—those who have chosen to live out their days on the weather-beaten coast, about as far west as the continent will allow. The accompanying title sheet identifies Clarke’s subjects by first name and birth date, along with where they were born and where they grew up. Subjects hail from Milwaukee to Queens and as farflung as Johannesburg. These details not only reveal a diversity of origin, but a desire to find place and create community. “Autumn” feels like a tribute to this particular aspect of our community, and to some of the individuals who helped to build it. 

Also not to be missed at Gallery Route One are Linda MacDonald’s small paintings made from vintage postcards of visitors dwarfed by California’s giant redwoods, and the Lucid Art Residency’s annual exhibition.


Jennifer O’Keeffe is an artist and educator. She lives in Inverness.