Michèle Pearson Clarke at the Art Gallery of Hamilton

By Stephanie Vegh

The phrase “muscle memory” suggests robust instincts that lurk beneath the skin in readiness for battle, poised in reactive potential. As the title of Michèle Pearson Clarke’s solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the words also evoke the irrepressible drives of grief and desire that endure through combative and commonplace moments alike.

Michèle Pearson Clarke, Quantum Choir, 2022, installation view (photo: Yuula Benivolski)

The exhibition draws upon the artist’s own body as well as those of her collaborators – of which the viewer unwittingly becomes one. The leading installation, Quantum Choir, occupies the cold logic of a cavernous gallery space, its concrete floors mapped with a grid of soccer balls and training cones. This arrangement provides ample paths while compelling a different sort of walking – eyes warily downcast, steps carefully taken towards the enticement of sound and light emanating from the room’s guarded centre.

Michèle Pearson Clarke, Quantum Choir, 2022, installation view (photo: Yuula Benivolski)

The structure that houses Quantum Choir hides nothing of its necessities, rising from floor to ceiling as a bare-bones arrangement of support struts, screens, and speakers. Each video monitor is positioned on its end to present a portrait view of one of four self-identified “bad singers” (Clarke among them) facing inward to each other. All are dressed in blue denims and cottons, each individualized yet establishing a uniform of sorts for this quartet of masculine-presenting women who swap screens throughout their performances. Their utilitarian clothes are both modest and assertive against a shared backdrop that blooms with pastel femininity. Despite looming larger than life-size, these women meet the camera, and the viewer in turn, with a direct gaze that strikes an irresistible kinship.

This empathy deepens as the four progress through a fluttering flurry of warm-up exercises to a rousing rendition of “Queen of Denmark,” a song by queer folk-rock artist John Grant. His lyrics swell among these amateur singers to a defiant crescendo of unskilled joy – more shouted than melodic, and all the more powerful for it.

Michèle Pearson Clarke, Muscle Memory, 2022, installation view (photo: Yuula Benivolski)

A much shorter trek across that sportive minefield leads to a second gallery dominated by a wallpapered pattern of Clarke’s face leaning into frame to display a thickly glittered moustache. This room’s self-portraits from The Animal Seems to be Moving, a series in progress since 2018, alternately obscure and reveal the artist’s queer, black body aging from boyishness into a fraught masculinity.

Clarke navigates this passage with defiant playfulness, drawing on the trappings and poses of masculinity to perform her possibilities. In the diptych T-Shirt Head, the artist’s clean-shaven head is an egg that pushes at the neck of a t-shirt printed in a male plumage of peacock feathers, testing the cloth like a birth canal. When Clarke’s face emerges elsewhere, it most often bears a wry, quizzical frown like that she wears while modeling a hilarious hairy romper. These are the deliberately playful poses of someone caught in the act of trying things out, of tossing glitter in the air to see what sticks.

Glitter, of course, has a way of catching on everything, and Clarke’s performed gestures here display a similar stickiness. Their spark lands bright and sharp, throwing light back in your face and lingering long after.

Michèle Pearson Clarke: Muscle Memory continues until September 5.
Art Gallery of Hamilton: https://www.artgalleryofhamilton.com/
The gallery is accessible.

Stephanie Vegh is a Hamilton-based artist, writer and arts worker focused on communications and advocacy. Her drawings, installations and book-based works investigate cyclical histories and human impacts on the natural world. She can be followed on Instagram @stephanievegh