Cob presents Scarlett Carlos Clarke’s debut solo exhibition, The Smell of Calpol on a Warm Summer’s Night.
In this richly imagined articulation of all the strangeness and anxiety of our present moment, Carlos Clarke meditates on the new intensities of domesticity, motherhood and isolation, and the uneasy blend of immediacy and distance that has become the hallmark of lockdown. On the one hand, a world that has become virtual, mediated by the numbing electric glow of phone and TV screens; on the other, the crushing inescapability of four walls and a toddler screaming at 2 AM. The exhibition is presented immersive installation including sculptural, photographic and sensory works, transforming the gallery into a space that resonates with this confounding contradiction.
The madonna and child re-imagined in a suburban living room, sunk into a plush leather armchair, bathing in the blue light of advertising’s stylised plenitude and the sticky panacea of strawberry-pink paracetamol. These are some of the keynotes of Carlos Clarke’s reflections on motherhood as exacerbated by Covid-19. Pumped up on sucrose, stuck in a glass box – energy and torpor. Wanting opposites at once. As the artist herself puts it: ‘craving mess and chaos, craving control; feeling shackled, feeling free; feeling safe and vulnerable; feeling weak and empowered; feeling bored and madly excited; feeling alone’. A life lived within these contradictions is at the core of Carlos Clarke’s rendition of the transcendent, exhausted mother: life-giver and energy source figured by the sculpture of a lactating torso at the centre of the exhibition. And the ‘living’ room is where it all happens – the beach of the present, with the horizon always in view.
A sense of being ‘contained’ or ‘framed’ in various ways at once – within a swelling body, an armchair, a front room or a maternal bond – is key to Carlos Clarke’s work. The subjects of her photographs, like the visitor to the gallery space, are framed in a meticulously rendered domestic setting where comfort has become itchy, safety oppressive: a world of only interiors. Thick carpets and soft furnishings play to the sense of suffocation within our seamless ‘bubbles’, as well as the frustrating collapse of tactility suggested by that term. Glowing pixels out of shot suggest some ephemeral means of escape, even if it’s just visual anaesthesia. The tonality of the work, meanwhile, captures a screen-addict sense of impending apocalypse lurking beyond the frame, haunting this apparently most anodyne of settings with a threat of further catastrophe to come. It’s a critical and urgent reply to the conditions to which we’ve become accustomed, if not reconciled.
Exhibition text by Nick Waplington
Scarlett Carlos Clarke’s uncanny images speak to me in a number of different voices, from across space and time.
As a photographer who has worked on domestic interiors and everyday family life, I can’t help but see these images as part of a long tradition of domestic realism. Scarlett’s images are full of details of washing powder and armchairs and baby bottles, mothers and children who seem both loving and exhausted. She conjures a hectic world of family life that also suggests a powerful loneliness and alienation.
As I studied these works, I found myself thinking of Nan Goldin and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, artists working within a documentary tradition of photography who also seek to dramatize the psychological tensions of domestic intimacy. But I found myself reminded more powerfully of painters. These images called to my mind the works of two early 20th century painters, Edward Hopper and Grant Wood. Like Hopper and Wood, Scarlett is interested in presenting the dark side of the everyday, her figures – often isolated female figures – gesturing toward a domestic dream that has become sinister and uncanny.
At the same time, however, these images also conjure a completely different artistic lineage. Their lighting, their hyperreality, their attention to the female body and especially the maternal body - all of this also echoes the lurid fantasy world of 18th century Rococo painting, as we see with the preening, fleshy mother-goddess of François Boucher’s “Toilet of Venus” series. Like these painters, Scarlett transforms mundane experience and fleshly embodiment into something joyous and exuberant, a world of wilful joy completed with splashes of garish colour (even if it is via a Daz box rather than a winged cupid).
Scarlett’s powerful, evocative, contradictory work may draw on centuries of art history – but it is also entirely of its moment. This is fantasy of twenty-first century living: Netflix, online food deliveries, and pandemic-driven boredom provides the backdrop for alienation, joy, desperation, and desire.