Clare Longley, Adult Lullabies
catalogue essay by Laura Couttie
A lullaby is a calming piece of music, simply constructed and repetitive in form, which is played for, or sung to, infants and children to soothe or send them to sleep. Lullabies have been found to have positive therapeutic value, not just for young children, but for adults as well, and interestingly, the act of singing or playing a lullaby can have the same effect on the performer as on the listener. Perhaps this is because their hypnotic rhythms set the pace for a slowing of the heartbeat and breath. Conversely, an elevated heartbeat, quickened pulse and breath are physiological signs of anxiety and stress.
The concept of slowing down has gone viral in the Western world, tapping into our desire to counteract the anxieties and stresses of a fast-paced world that is increasingly dominated by technology. In 2015, musician and composer Max Richter created an album called Sleep, an 8 hour continuous piece of music, which he describes as a “personal lullaby for a frenetic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” Working with a neuroscientist to learn about the brain’s functioning during sleep, Richter composed the music so as to facilitate and promote our natural sleep cycles; essentially a lullaby for adults. Indeed, there is something magical in music’s ability to illicit an emotion or transport you to another place or time.
For Clare Longley, a particular acoustic soft-rock album, listened to on repeat, functioned as a soundtrack to the series of eleven paintings in Adult Lullabies. The mellow, easy-listening tunes conjured scenes of the beach and long, lazy summer holidays, memories of falling asleep as a child with the comforting sounds of her parent’s playing music in the background. This nostalgic tone is reflected in the series of paintings, particularly the aptly titled Air dry, island breeze and in the recurring motif of tropical frangipani flowers. Clare’s paintings can be considered kitsch – if we take the term to mean images of mass-appeal, depicting ideals of beauty and intentionally invoking sentimentality. Stereotypical visual symbols of beauty, femininity and romance are celebrated in these paintings. Clare is drawn to images that are considered universally pleasing – flowers, butterflies, love hearts, sunsets – simple, romantic motifs that have the power to tap into universal emotion or nostalgia, images that evoke warm, fuzzy feelings. Deliberately anti-political – a statement in itself in our current climate – there is something powerful in Clare’s romantic longing for seductive simplicity.
Rarely exhibiting her paintings due to frustrations and perceived failures, Clare holds onto romantic visions of Sunday painters. She wants the process to be enjoyable, and as such has developed a set of personal guidelines to aid in the composition and arrangement of her painting subject matter. She has found that deliberately setting boundaries opens up the potential for intuition and improvisation in the painting process. Beginning by collecting images of interest from her camera roll and occasionally the internet, she prints them in randomly generated contact sheets in order to discover unexpected subject associations or visual cues. Taking this process as the starting point for her composition, Clare sketches the images onto the canvas then paints in layers, which are rubbed back, reworked or covered over. She uses a dry brush, allowing the layers beneath the surface to be seen, making visible any mistakes and illuminating the thought process and practice of trial and error. Despite the sketchiness of the finished product, there is a sense of care and consideration in the apparent carelessness of this process.
Clare makes a conscious decision to use a limited colour palette of predominantly child-like colours – duck egg and cornflower blues, colours of the sky and ocean, and pale yellows, the shade of butter or lemons. Though a couple of works have darker, murkier undertones, suggestive of something more sinister lurking beneath the surface. Similarly, while many of the titles of the works reference holidays, beaches and romance, some, including Nervous butterflies and Try to be appealing and lose your appeal, reveal a complex self-awareness beneath the hopeful sincerity.
Many of the paintings feature compositional framing – frames within the frame – suggesting the viewer is gazing through a window onto the scene. The image is slightly hazy, as though blurred by steam or mist, reminiscent of a scene from a Hollywood daydream or memory. The paintings in Adult Lullabies convey a self-conscious naivety and knowing innocence. It’s not that Clare necessarily sees the world with rose-coloured glasses, but that she deliberately chooses to create a comforting fantasy world for us to retreat into, a chance for escapism, an invitation to dream. Like a lullaby, viewing these paintings allows us to take a pause, slow down our hearts and minds and drift into reverie.
- Laura Couttie, 2017