THE POETRY OF MEMORY
BY ASHLEY CRAWFORD
There was a wonderful irony about writing on Clara Adolphs’ work during Spring, 2016. The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art was hosting Painting, More Painting, a poorly structured but much needed survey of contemporary Australian painting. For well over a decade that institution had ignored paint, seeming to take to heart the famous 1839 proclamation by the French artist Paul Delaroche that painting was dead. Delaroche had valid, if panicky, reasons for such an apocalyptic scenario – photography had forcefully asserted itself as a dominant mode of image making during his era. Painting as a force for pure representational displays was indeed on the back foot. But Delaroche, like many at the time, had sorely underestimated the visceral power of applied pigments.
Clara Adolphs’ works are painterly indeed. Their very physicality is the first thing one notes. The paint is liberally applied, thick swathes of it, layered vigorously with the ancient tool of the palette knife; the features of the protagonists captured broadened to an extent that they become generic ‘everyman’ figures. “The anonymity of the characters in my paintings is an attempt to avoid sentimentality,” Adolphs claims. “Being disconnected from their identity allows a focus on the indefinable, yet timeless, collective nature of the human condition.”
But despite her claim, something of the individual portrayed still manages to emerge. Rendered in muted colours, the powerful scent of nostalgia imbues these works, not unlike the odd feelings one experiences while shuffling through aged family snapshots, unsure as to who the individuals are, but knowing that in some way they are part of your family’s history and thus your own, feeling that, in your ignorance, that you should know these people that were once near and dear to your great, great grandmother.
This is indeed apt when it comes to Adolphs’ painting. The figures are in fact sourced from aged, found photographs and thus, somewhere in their history were anchored to very real people and very real events. Mists of time and the physical disconnect from their source make these photographs abstractions and Adolphs takes this a stride further, bringing these analog Ilfochrome ghosts back to life by injecting fresh pigment into their monochrome veins.
Strangely, Adolphs desire for anonymity for her figures seems to fail. Despite the flattened tableaux of their facial features there is the nagging hint of recognition, that very sense of the “collective nature of the human condition.” We may not recognise the individual, but we recognise the mis en scene all too well: the melancholy businessman about to enter his nine-to-five hades, the strained relationships beneath the red umbrella, the moment of lone contemplation in the backyard, the horror of the revelations in the note, the recognition of aging and loneliness in the mirror.
Adolphs is not necessarily reliant upon photography in her quest, as can be all too readily seen in her brilliant portrait of well-known actor and a musician Terry Serio, which won her inclusion in the 2016 Archibald Prize. But her bowerbird instinct for collecting photographic detritus allows her a template to explore far grander themes. Mind Games is an all too apt title for here we find the full gamut, the full torture of our shared experiences: Love, betrayal, friendship and lies are just the tip of the icepick. We can add our own narratives – for Friday’s Table he’s hearing her say she is seeing another man, in Holiday Pool a friend is admitting she has fallen pregnant to the wrong man. These are not generic images of unknown persons. These are portraits of moments that you and I have lived through and are destined to live through again… and again.
– Ashley Crawford
To view Clara Adophs 'Mind Games' online please click here