Scarlett Carlos Clarke’s sickly sweet vision of domesticity

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In the artist’s debut exhibition, closing this Saturday, Clarke conjures a sense of comfort and claustrophobia through windows onto domestic worlds

A sense of uneasiness pervades the dimly lit domestic interiors of Scarlett Carlos Clarke’s images. Women — lethargic and lost — recline on plump sofas, gaze into household appliances, or stare listlessly into the distance. Thick curtains, scratchy carpets, and dirty linoleum floors frame these claustrophobic spaces, furnished with drooping plants and miscellaneous ornaments; a dim glow – emanating from television screens – coating it all. 

“I see a grotesque heightened version of normality, which magnifies and elevates the mundane,” observes Clarke of the worlds presented in her debut exhibition, The Smell of Calpol on a Warm Summer’s Night, on show at Cob Gallery, London, until this Saturday, 31 July. “They feel safe and warm in their familiarity yet at the same time suffocating.” The large-scale tableaus are evocative of windows onto domestic worlds. An apt analogy given Clarke conceived of the idea in 2017 while staring into strangers’ windows along the seafront as she pushed her newborn son’s pram.

Untitled. 2018. Courtesy Scarlett Carlos Clarke and Cob Gallery.
Paradise. 2020. Courtesy Scarlett Carlos Clarke and Cob Gallery.
That day on the beach. 2021. Courtesy Scarlett Carlos Clarke and Cob Gallery.
The New Flesh. 2019. Courtesy Scarlett Carlos Clarke and Cob Gallery.

The photographs, however, should not be read as a reflection of Clarke’s experience of motherhood. Instead, they engender a visceral feeling tied to the experience of domesticity. That simultaneous sense of comfort and claustrophobia, which can intensify after becoming a parent. “I never intended the series to be autobiographical,” Clarke continues, “but there is a level of intensity in the rooms – they can feel claustrophobic; suffocating at times – and I think that subconsciously those early years with my son did start to seep in.” 

The work took Clarke four years to make; the vision she had was strong, and recreating this, in reality, was a challenge. Nonetheless, each of the completed images exudes a visceral atmosphere, and this seeps into the carpeted exhibition space itself, the air thick with the sweet smell of Calpol. In the centre of the room, a sculpture of the artist’s pregnant torso weeps milk. Meanwhile, the song Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells plays on repeat. “I wanted the space to feel familiar yet uneasy,” explains Clarke. And, although audiences may attempt to ascribe specific meanings to the work, ultimately, it is the intensity of the atmosphere, which Clarke conjures, that seeps through.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.