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In Georgetown’s MOCA D.C. gallery, before an audience of bright-yellow, top-hatted painted Mr. Peanuts, two men—brothers, painters, at times violent competitors—recall the incident more than 20 years ago in which a household appliance nearly tore their family apart.
Mark Clark, sporting a fedora, sets the story’s scene: It was 1981, and he was opening an exhibition of graffiti art at the now-defunct Olshonsky Gallery downtown. It was a group show, featuring works by contemporaries Kevin MacDonald, Michael Reedy, and a suspicious character called Lorenzo Nuovo. (Mark had been caught spray-painting a Laurel, Md., shopping center as a form of political protest, so he wasn’t taking any chances on police interference with the show by using his real name.)
In a counterintuitive promotional plan, Mark opted not to tell anyone about the opening—even his envious older brother Michael, who had introduced his younger brother to the D.C. arts scene when Mark was studying painting and drawing for a year at the Corcoran School of Art in 1968.
“This conversation is like peeling the scab off an old wound,” Mark, now 56, says, forging on with his version of events. At this point, Michael, 57, co-owner of MOCA D.C., creator of the Mr. Peanut series, and known in local arts circles simply as “Clark,” takes over.
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“I said to myself, Hey, why don’t I get to be in this show? So, an hour before the opening, I walked in and spray-painted ‘M.V. Clark, 1981’ on the wall above one of his pieces and said, ‘That’s my contribution.’” Mark sought vengeance by taking an air conditioner his brother had lent him, painting it blue, and throwing it out into the street.
“He ruined my $350 air conditioner,” Michael huffs. Then, to add insult to injury, Mark told Michael that “if he ever spoke to me again, I would stomp on him like a fucking dog.”
But after eight years and the deaths of their parents, the brothers buried the antique hatchet Mark once broke on Michael’s head. “Mom dropped off, and we realized this was stupid,” Michael says. As part of the reconciliation process, the two mounted “Clark Brothers, Head to Head,” on view at MOCA D.C. until Oct. 31.
The Clarks had never planned on exhibiting together. But a year ago, one of Mark’s friends, Truman Lowe, the curator of contemporary art at the National Museum of the American Indian, suggested a gallery showing of Native American art to coincide with the museum’s opening. Since the Clarks are either half- or quarter-Cherokee—one of the myriad things they debate—they immediately thought of themselves.
Michael insists, “If you have the Indian spirit, you have to be true to the Indian spirit,” and pulls out a new painting that depicts his adaptation of a Crazy Horse Malt Liquor logo featuring a chief’s head and, of course, Mr. Peanut.
Mark, a retired curatorial assistant for the Smithsonian, is more dubious. “Tell me about the Great Spirit in Mr. Peanut,” he scoffs. Michael retaliates with some artistic theories he picked up while studying at New York’s Pratt Institute. “If you come from the tradition of Edward Hopper, what do you do? You can do faux Indian art, or you can deal with George Washington and the genocide he caused.” This kind of honest discourse can be valuable for an artist, and perhaps sibling rivalry could be a new inspiration for the two.
Or not.“Any time I have to hang out with this guy longer than an hour,” Mark sighs, “we start fighting like we’re 6 years old again.”—Adrian Brune