Sol y sombra: Salisbury Studios painter Adolphe Piche

Adolphe Piche knew he wanted to be an artist as a child. He considers this a strange thing for a child to know, and to know with such serene understanding and conviction. And yet so it is with wisdom, he tells me, a still youthful man now in his sixties: the wisest people are often simple and naïve in their approach to life. Adolphe now works from his studio at The Old Bomb Factory—the flip side of the Atelier—a homely, uncluttered space with dyed wall-hangings and countless jars of oil, pigment and varnish all labelled in French, simply furnished with battered wooden treasures of furniture painted in pastels, one such old relic of a table converted by means of a glass top into a large, freestanding palette.

Adolphe trained in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts (the National Superior School of Art) in the 1970s, arriving fresh from Venezuela at the age of twenty-one. This move brought him closer to home in many ways, his mother being from Granada in Spain, and his father’s family being French. Adolphe himself was born in Oran in the north of French Algeria. When he entered the school of art, it was assumed he could already paint, and his education consisted in many other undertakings, including anatomy (in which he came first, in half the time) and the making of paint. Adolphe continues to make his own paint following those same old recipes, spending an hour each morning laying out a fresh palette for the day.

His father’s father still lived in Paris when Adolphe first arrived, and it was then he went to see him for the third and final time in his life. Although unwelcoming, his grandfather—also an artist—had already made an indelible impression on him as a child. He recalls the adults discussing his grandfather’s occupation, and without having the details fleshed out, Adolphe felt a sure understanding of what it was to be an artist, and that he was one too.

The other experience that affirmed his art-driven convictions took place in his childhood in Northern Africa: the Sunday bullfights. Imprinted forever on his mind through the clear and hungry eyes of a child, the bullfights are all art, he tells me: life and death. Adolphe draws a lazy oval to explain the amphitheater, cutting it with the sweep of a crescent. He marks one side ‘SOL’ and the other ‘SOMBRA,’ his diagram instantly capturing the way light and shadow hug the form of an egg-shaped volume. On one side, the audience sits in the sun, on the other they sit in shade: the game has begun before the fight has started. The music announces the entrance of the toro bravo (the bull) and the bullfighter. It is life or death for the occupants of the ring: perhaps the bull will prevail, or perhaps the man will be crowned the matador—the killer. This battle of colours, of capes red and black, of deftness of movement, of light and shadow, of psychological mastery, crystallised in the young Adolphe’s mind as a clear metaphor for art, and for life itself. All art is life or death: every painting is a battle to the death, every true work is a valiant struggle, or else it is not art. The artist must stride into the ring and risk everything, every time.

‘I paint how I live, and I live how I paint,’ Adolphe says. ‘Painting is more than a craft. All of your life is there.’ His paintings are in many ways about loss, but also about recapturing what is lost. He has never returned to a bullfight since childhood, because that magic seen through the child’s gaze is sure to be lost, and he believes it is better to hold on to that profound experience than to try to relive it in the world. Rather than reliving, Adolphe recreates those moments by painting. Those moments from his past bleed and congeal into the theatre set upon which his paintings are staged: they set the scene for him, often creeping into the background, but they are always present and always forcing their influence on the present moment. There is no going back, but art resurrects your lost past.

Early in his career, Adolphe approached a gallery in Seville, Spain. He laughs as he recounts his proud response to the skeptical gallery owner who asked him, ‘And who are you? Where are you from? Why should I invest in your work?’ Full of confidence, he defended the quality and integrity of his work. ‘And do they know you, in your town?’ the gallery owner persisted. This prod made Adolphe rethink his whole strategy: he would start where he was. He went to the state-run Casa de la Cultura in his town, and arranged to have an exhibition. He joined other shows, and grew to be known in the area. Upon returning to Seville a number of years later, the same gallery owner was now asking after him. The first step was simple, but humbling, but opened up the world to the undeterred young painter. Since that time, Adolphe has fearlessly started again a number of times, moving to Adelaide, Australia, and most recently to Brisbane, and that same humility and trust in the small first steps propels him on, all obstacles be damned.

Adolphe insists that painting is its own form: it is not an accompaniment to something else, a backdrop, an interpretation of music, or an illustration of a story. There is no linear temporal thread, no narrative, and no dependence on any linguistic explanation. ‘Painting is not at the service of anything else,’ he assures me, and speaks ardently about the power of the purely visual possibilities contained within the four straight edges of the two-dimensional surface. We would do well to hold fast to such a strong, simple conviction, relishing the importance and singular position of our trade, and remembering that we are already putting our entire selves into it, weaving our pasts into a complex unity. We need no justifications or explanations if we are already facing life or death every time we enter the studio.

Aldophe's paintings:

Article by Samantha Groenestyn

All images © 2014 Anton Piche