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Scarlett Carlos Clarke, “Paradise” (2019)
Scarlett Carlos Clarke, The Smell of Calpol on A Warm Summer’s Night (2021)Photography Scarlett Carlos Clarke

Scarlett Carlos Clarke captures lockdown motherhood in surreal imagery

The artist’s exhibition, The Smell of Calpol on A Warm Summer’s Night, evokes the alienation and claustrophobia that shadows domestic bliss

Like an apocalyptic kitchen sink drama, Scarlett Carlos Clarke’s debut solo exhibition, The Smell of Calpol on a Warm Summer’s Night, is an immersive experience of photographic imagery, sculpture, and video. The artist’s enthralling tableaus of life in lockdown depict scenes of domestic dystopia and the profound isolation of motherhood – a species of loneliness born from the tremendous responsibilities that having a child entails – while her sculptural works represent the alienation of pregnancy; of one’s own body being invaded and requisitioned. 

Set at nighttime, this series of portraits are characterised by their surreal absence of natural light – exhausted mothers and distressed children are lit by the harmful, lurid blue rays of smartphones, televisions, and the interior lights of fridge-freezers. The images convey a sense of claustrophobia and incubation magnified by the experience of quarantine  – of swelling pregnant bodies and growing infants contained within a series of closeted, carpeted interiors. The sickly-sweet smell of Calpol is almost palpable.

Central to the exhibition is a sculpture cast from the artist’s own pregnant torso, perpetually weeping milk. It seems to signify whatever the binary opposite of being disembodied may be – a body without an identity, cognitive thought, or autonomy... reduced entirely to the bodily functions of pregnancy and lactation. Yet, it’s powerful and majestic, presiding over the gallery space on its pedestal. 

The lighting and tone of the photographs lend a heightened drama to Carlos Clarke’s scenes of domestic realism.  “The images called to my mind the works of two early 20th century painters, Edward Hopper and Grant Wood,” suggests artist Nick Waplington in the exhibition text. “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.” 

Yet, despite the foreboding and slightly unsettling quality of Carlos Clarke’s vision of motherhood and thwarted domestic bliss, there’s something incredibly alluring about her depiction of stylish, suburban cul-de-sac chic. Her protagonists possess the same vacant-eyed ennui that pervades the detached gazes of Miles Aldridge’s glamorous female figures. The lovingly recreated, perfect details – boxes of Pampers and Daz, a two-litre bottle of Irn Bru – anchor Carlos Clarke’s images in contemporary Britain, yet the suburban interiors are also reminiscent of Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home (if he had set his project in Dagenham, for example, as opposed to Palm Springs).

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of some on display in the exhibition. 

Scarlett Carlos Clarke’s The Smell of Calpol on A Warm Summer’s Night is at London’s Cob Gallery until July 31 2021