The advent of photography changed the course of painting definitively. No longer did beautiful landscapes need to be painted amid the temperamental conditions of nature. And gone were the days when you would have to sit for hours to have your face replicated on a two-dimensional plane. The camera could do that for you, and it could do it instantly and precisely. Portrait sittings diminished, the importance of preserving landscapes in the name of art was reconsidered, and the role of painting was called into question. But not to its detriment, even though this may have seemed to be the case initially… To assert this, we can look towards Modern Art and all of its immense innovations and yet, we often lose sight of the camera as one of the catalytic forces behind this. Clara Adolphs sources lost and discarded photographs that often depict certain landscapes and unknown people, and in painting them, she reminds us of this history. Her work harnesses painting as a form of documentation and asks: what can it offer here that photography may not?
In this new body of work, Adolphs adopts a larger scale. She states:
The photographs I work with are mostly very small, and in blowing them up, the figures and objects in the image become increasingly abstract, so I am required to create detail that isn’t there. But at the same time, it is important not to get too tied down in detail.
In many artistic portrayals of the camera, the photograph is depicted as an enigma, much like a silent bystander who has witnessed something that cannot be disclosed. Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal film Blow Up (1966) is famously reminiscent of this. The film follows Thomas, the protagonist who has captured a lovers’ quarrel in the park. At home, he develops and enhances the scale of the photographs, and he becomes intensely fascinated by them. He begins noticing the various arrangements of light and shadow, and he continues to look deeper and deeper into the image until he discovers a crime scene playing out in the speckled black and white background (what appears to be a man with a gun and a body lying on the ground). Beyond the surface lies a story here, but it asks more questions than it answers. While Adolphs’ work doesn’t deal with this particular subject matter, her practice similarly utilises photography for its ability to reveal information while also concealing it. In blowing up the snapshot by translating it into a large painting, Adolphs attempts to grapple with all of the complexities that are not immediately visible in its small, original form. She seems to extract something deeply encoded within the image, something that we can feel in our memories and experiences. Though Adolphs’ source material is rooted in the past, there is something so timeless about her reinterpretation of it.
Adolphs is an intuitive painter who marks her surface with confidence but also with consideration. Her palette is imagined because the pictures that she sources are mostly black and white. Her cool tones capture a fleeting sense — a moment that is somewhere beyond the horizon. Her sweeping strokes invigorate the scenes she renders, and her impasto use of colour intensifies attributes pertinent to a particular landscape, for instance, the blue of the ocean or the frosty sky in the alps. A distinctive aspect of this exhibition is that her subjects are predominately alone and caught mid-action without warning. Some are splashing the water, performing strokes in the ocean, and others have retreated into themselves and are not aware that they are being watched. There are dashes of colour placed beside multiple sections where the canvas is left untouched to indicate such movement but also to show a lapse in time. The complexity of memory seductively lingers, and we become oddly invested in this isolated moment.
The work brings to mind Edward Hopper — the American artist of empty spaces — because his characters also offer us the chance to reside within their space for a while. They too are far from home; we see them in the hotel, the gas station, the coffee shop in a foreign city. Both artists de-emphasise tone to flatten out the surface and hence, create a sort of emotional vacuum that facilitates a melancholic romanticism. We project a yearning for connection onto these anonymous subjects, but we take comfort in their solitude. In Adolphs’ paintings, we get a little closer, and then we discover why these characters are so familiar: we see them in ourselves.
Elle Charalambu, 2019