Alchemy in Artistic Representation - Adele Renault in an Interview

May 25, 2016

Adele Renault is a Belgian painter, engaged both in the genre of classical painting and street art, and in both cases, she seems to approach her subject matter with a great deal of attention, especially when it comes to the details - the ones that can be found on the outside, and on the inside as well. Adele Renault reveals in this interview the stories behind her inspiration, the creative process and views of the world. She was born into a family of artists (musicians, to be precise), therefore her interest in art seems to be natural. Still, Adele chose to follow a slightly different path, and her exceptional talent for realistic depiction was the probable cause. Adele modestly claims that it is not possible for her paintings to be more realistic than reality itself, but the truth is that she somehow manages to funnel reality through her art, addressing its most prominent aspects, and thus making it as real as it can get. The artist is consumed by beauty, and she finds it everywhere, not just in the most apparently beautiful things. This ability to decipher the seemingly ordinary features and to turn them into detailed emotional portraits is close to some kind of an alchemical skill or a wizardry, and it's probably best to let Adele herself explain how this sort of magic happens. We had an opportunity to invite Adele to an insightful conversation, following her upcoming exhibition Les Hommes Integres, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

Music and Visual Arts

WideWalls: Do you feel that music has somehow inspired you to start painting, given that you come from a family of musicians? Did it introduce you to the art world, or did it do the contrary, make you wish to become a painter and not a musician?

Growing up in a family of artists has certainly broadened my horizons, and gave me the ‘travel virus’. But It didn’t introduce me to the art world, which is quite a tough scene to get into. I grew up in the countryside and traveled the world with fairly unknown world musicians. Very different than Art Basel Miami. My parents did always encourage any kind of creativity. I used to play guitar, but I felt I really never had a talent for it, I had to work so hard for very poor results whereas painting/drawing always came very natural. Everyone was always saying “wow, you can draw!”. No one ever said anything about my guitar skills, so the choice was very easy and natural to make.

WideWalls: Some artists claim that they are capable of synesthesia, meaning that they sometimes mix different systems of perception. Do you somehow relate music (as another type of sensation) to your painting, in any way? 

No I really wouldn’t claim that I’m capable of synesthesia. I don’t know enough about it either. When I was a kid, I used to see a color for each day of the week, Monday = blue, Tuesday = pink, Wednesday = green, etc. But I don’t think it was synesthesia but rather a strong memory from a school board that I looked at each day in my first school. I do however find it very difficult to paint without music. I always paint listening to my own playlist or to FIP radio (which I really recommend, the best eclectic radio around). Music is like fuel in a way.

Hidden Layers of Beauty

WideWalls: You are obviously inspired by the deeper layers of beauty and not the apparent ones, focusing on the elderly and the homeless people, all of whom carry their own unique character, and tell different stories. How did you first get interested in these “overlooked” groups of people, so to speak?

I’ve always liked to explore and make friends in the most unlikely places. And maybe there’s a certain urge to give some dignity to forgotten groups of people like the elderlies we hide in homes outside the city centers or the homeless that we hide or refuse to see. And finally there’s an aesthetic reason, when it comes to portraits, faces that have ‘lived’, that have been marked by a harsh or long life are more interesting, I think a lot of photographers and painters would agree.

WideWalls: Do you aim to represent them in a more realistic manner? Or do you add something of your own to their portraits? For example, the effect of overexposure and high contrast in your latest series (people from Burkina Faso). Why was that important to you?

I don’t aim to be more realistic than reality, that would be a paradox. I do however like to really focus on details and take them out of a context, shed a bright overexposed sunlight over it to create an experience you don’t get by looking at ‘reality’. My paintings have a different feel than my photographs, even if it’s photorealistic in a way. I find that important. If a painting is the same as a photo, then why bother making a painting. I unconsciously emphasise some details or some colours more than others. That’s an impulse, there’s no reason behind it and that’s what makes the paintings different from reality or a photo.

WideWalls: How do people react to their portraits, the ones that you made?

It’s sometimes quite confronting. People tend to think they look younger, or not realise they have so many wrinkles. But in general they react quite astonished.

WideWalls: And what about pigeons – what is it that caught your attention? Is it also the fact that they are somehow “overlooked”, within the urban context of the city? Or is there something else?

I’ve always been attracted to birds. Their expressive attitude is fascinating. And if you live in a city, well if you’re looking for bird subjects, you’ll soon turn to pigeons. And it slowly became an obsession. Now, I don’t ask myself “why pigeons?” but “which pigeon in particular, which part, which detail of a pigeon do I know to paint.” I love them because they are the underdogs.

WideWalls: You have been inspired by a particular pigeon – Camp (a pigeon with his own Instagram account). Why was he special to you? 

I stumbled upon his Instagram account and became fan instantly. For me — who had been painting pigeons for quite some years already — it was amazing to have a pigeon’s life documented on a daily basis, from the moment he hatched. It didn’t take long before I wanted to make his portraits and then make a series of portraits documenting his whole life. You could say he is my muse! And the fact that his surrogate parents in Chicago are such lovely people (painter George Keaton and photographer Mariah Naella) made it all even more special. I exhibited the whole series in Chicago and met several times with Camp (and Mariah  & George). This pigeon is of course special because he grew up with human parents and thinks he’s a human himself. He’s totally tame, and quite bossy sometimes! Seeing him and touching him was so amazing after having painted so many detailed portraits of him.

Visual Conversations and Plans for the Future

WideWalls: Looking at the portraits that you make feels like reading someone’s biography, written by a person who has this gift for understanding and knowing people. Do you feel like you’re exposing someone’s personality through your painting, and if so, how do you compare this to your pigeon paintings? Do you feel the same when working with humans and birds? Is there some sort of character in both cases?

This is a very nice compliment: “Looking at the portraits that you make feels like reading someone’s biography”. That is in a way what I try to do. In a portrait, you have to express a person’s character. The look in their eyes is very important. So is every wrinkle. Someone who’s been laughing a lot in his life develops very different deep wrinkles around the eyes and mouth than someone who’s been sad for years. As for the pigeons, I could say that I have shown Camp‘s personality through the whole series. With just one pigeon it’s quite hard, I can’t really have a conversation with a single pigeon :-) although I do often recognize them individually.

WideWalls: How do you  compare your studio work to working outside? Which one do you prefer, and why?

I like both, but studio work is definitely more in my focus right now. In the studio it’s serious work, hours and hours, days, weeks on each painting, a story and a dialogue with each portrait. Outside work is more recreational for me. But it might shift at some point. I really love working in large scale, so it is possible that at some point I will start working outside on a more regular basis. But then I won’t have time to make enough studio work to exhibit.

WideWalls: What will you be doing in the future? Do you think that this fascination with the hidden, inconspicuous beauty will last? Or do you feel some new kind of inspiration coming?

Adele: I’m working on my upcoming solo show where I will be showing portraits of elderly people that I met in Burkina Faso. But I’m always one or two series ahead in my head. The next one will focus on macro details of pigeons, I will literally zoom in and paint large scale details of feathers, pigeons eyes etc. Some stuff you can’t really see with the naked eye so yes you could say I’m still fascinated with the hidden beauty.

Adele's upcoming show at Art is just a four letter word will start on June 4th, 2016. Make sure to come by!

All images courtesy of Adele Renault t and art is just a four letter word UG&Co.KG

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