Andrew Clarke

Adelaide artist Andrew Clarke chats to Artist Profile about his colour-focused new series of paintings, 'Mephistopheles' Yellow Vacuum Cleaner', ahead of his inclusion in the SALA Festival at Hill Smith Gallery.


Mephistopheles is a demon featured in German folklore. Is the title ‘Mephistopheles’ Yellow Vacuum Cleaner’ an absurdist construction, or is there logic operating here?
I think the answer to that question is ‘a little bit of both’. By placing a canonic figure from the European literary tradition alongside a brightly coloured icon of modern domesticity I’m trying to set up an incongruous relationship and, as a result, elicit a sense of the absurd. This is in many ways reminiscent of my overall approach to painting, which often involves referencing literary and art historical themes out of their ordinary context with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone.

In invoking the name Mephistopheles I’m also alluding to Goethe’s play Faust– specifically Mephistopheles’ function as a literary device transforming the experience of the protagonist from the ordinary or mundane to the mystical and fantastic.

Your paintings conjure worlds in which the domestic interior intersects with absurdist theatre; where mundanity dances with drama. Where does your interest in theatricality stem from?
Largely my interest in theatricality derives from my interest in historical narrative paintings, particularly those of the Baroque and Romantic periods of European art history. It’s always been my desire to create within the static two dimensional picture plane the same sense of liveliness that we see in these historic works. In attempting to forge a contemporary approach to narrative painting, I’ve engaged with modernist and postmodernist developments in the way narratives can be structured. I try to incorporate concepts such as nonlinear narrative, the estrangement effect and the theatre of the absurd.

In conducting research for my painting practice I’ve also taken an interest in the role of gesture and the body in theatrical art forms, particularly some of the strange and wonderful forms of physical theatre throughout history such as the commedia dell’arte and tableaux vivant.

Do you work from source material?
Yes, an important part of my practice is what I like to think of as composition in physical space. This involves the collection of objects, pieces of fabric and most importantly marching through the supermarket comparing the hues of cleaning products with various items of fresh produce. I then create a life-sized tableaux; an arrangement of objects through which the human models are required to traverse in order to assume their pose.

Despite the ostensible chaos of incongruous object-relationships, there’s a strong compositional balance in the works. How do you construct each painting?
I make use of a number of geometric approaches to composition and the organisation of pictorial space, and often the genesis of a painting is a simple linear or shape idea. This geometric structure serves as a compositional scaffold for the placement of figures and objects within the picture plane. My intent is that they sit below the reading of the painting itself, to provide the resulting image with a structural unity.

My approach to colour is much more intuitive. Whilst I generally have an overall plan for the colour theme, there’s a lot of trial and error in fine tuning colour relationships.

This emphasis on colour relationships is evident in many of your latest paintings, which major on a single hue in title and palette.
Colour is the primary material that a painter works with. I think that in itself makes it a subject worthy of deeper consideration. Our understanding of colour and the differentiation between hues is culturally determined. Language often seems to fail when attempting to describe colour so we resort to referencing the physical world – an idea explored in my titles such as ‘As of the sea or sky on a sunny day’.  

Colour has been hijacked by the culture of marketing and consumerism to the extent that many products have ownership of and can be easily identified by the mere indication of a certain shape and a certain hue. This has led a number of artists to turn away from colour, but for me this is a reason to try and take colour back: to make use of and, to an extent, subvert, the colour cues in the mass produced objects that surround us.

Your works have been described as ‘monuments to banality and boredom’. Are you being critical of contemporary existence?
Although it’s a somewhat romantic notion, I’m always intrigued by the thought that as a consequence of the development of civilisation, the human animal has managed to domesticate itself. Like domesticated sheep and cattle, we as a species have been molded by and have become existentially reliant upon the societal structures that we have collectively developed. I don’t believe that our contemporary civilisation is in and of itself a negative thing; rather I take the view that we’re still coming to terms with our domesticated selves, that we are, at times, lost and overwhelmed by civilisation and domesticity and that there remains a lot of social evolution required before we come to terms with it.

How are you positioning the viewer to engage with the ambiguous narratives and elusive meanings in ‘Mephistopheles’ Yellow Vacuum Cleaner’?
I don’t like to be didactic in my work. However I feel that there is some merit in the maxim put forward by symbolist poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarme: that in order to approach truth a subject must be approached indirectly, through the use of metaphor and through the imposition of an undefined significance upon the objects of our everyday experiences, so that they transcend their ordinary meaning. The paintings I make are intended to facilitate this kind of symbolic thinking in relation to our mundane existence.

EXHIBITION
Andrew Clarke | 
Mephistopheles’ Yellow Vacuum Cleaner
19 July – 1 September 2018
Hill Smith Gallery, Adelaide