The West Adams Portrait Series: In Conversation with Adele Renault
We have known Adele Renault's work to involve beautiful, hyperreal portraits of birds. But something energized her upon newly locating to Los Angeles. When she opened her studio on West Adams Blvd in Los Angeles, she began to find motivation and a narrative playing out in front of her. The city became alive, not with the stereotypical Hollywood storylines, but just of the people who lived and worked around her. South of the 10 Freeway, West Adams cuts through unique neighborhoods of Los Angeles, from the Arts District of Culver City to south of downtown. On September 6, 2019, Adele will open her studio at 4919 W Adams for a special presentation of her new portrait series painted of her neighbors, an intimate look at the unique world of Southern California. We got a chance to chat with Adele this week to get the idea behind the series, how she found LA to be a special place and why its made her feel at home.
Juxtapoz: First off, was moving to LA a big change for you?
Adele Renault: It was gradual ,because I had several mural jobs in LA in 2017. So I kept coming back every 2-3 months, and started driving a truck that a friend had lent me for the first job, driving instead of taking Ubers or being driven by friends. That really made a change, and that’s when I started to really like LA and imagine what it would be like to live here.
What surprised me is that I liked it so much and felt so at home at this time in my life. It didn’t on many previous trips. Always preferred SF to LA. Maybe south of the 10 reminded me of Venezuela where I spend a semester when I was 14. An unconscious familiarity.
It’s a big change being 9 hours behind Europe, I always like to be ahead! It’s a good mental exercise for me to wake up after everyone. For the rest, I don’t want to sound jaded or blasé, but I have travelled and lived in so many places, nothing really surprise me anymore. You can drop me anywhere on this planet, and I'll be like, "Ok that’s how people live here, I ll just do the same." But I am still in awe of the light and the vegetation every single day. The views, the mountains, the palm trees, the agaves, the sunsets. It sounds so cliché, but it still amazes me everyday.
How long did it take once you moved to LA to start thinking about this portrait series as a potential project?
A few weeks after moving into this place on West Adams, where my studio is at street level, no front yard. I really felt like this street had its own feel, almost like a village. As soon as I had a studio set up is when I wanted to start painting portraits of the neighbors, of the people I was going to see on a regular basis. The people in the places I ate, and where I fixed my car mostly. No deadline, no pressure, no exhibition, just to give myself a drive and a way to organically connect with my surrounding.
It’s so easy to live in a city and not know your neighbours names or have not interactions with them. Especially in LA, where the fabric of the city is so different than cities that I was used to in Europe, where everyone lives on top of each other. But somehow when it’s more crowded and you are constantly surrounded by hundreds of people in public transportation, on the streets or even your staircase, it’s easier to not talk and be lost in the mass. In LA especially, there’s less interaction because you are always in your car. But so when there is interaction or if you actually spend time on the street (I ride my bike a lot or sometimes have the studio door open) then it’s easier to start talking to the few people that are not in their cars.
The idea that someone is going to spend that many hours painting your portrait with oils and on linen is special. I mean, I have a lot of artist friends, but I've never had someone paint me. I wouldn't know what it feels like. But on my end of the stick, spending that time painting someone, definitely opens an inner conversation. It often results in a friendship, or kinship, with the person.
Who are the people you painted? And did it take some convincing or explaining on your part to get participation?
The people I painted are all people living working on W Adams Blvd. They are the people I interact with on a regular, if not daily basis. And they represent LA. The LA outside the studios and the hills. I started with my direct neighbor; Dorothy, who had a hair salon next to my studio. She likes to chat, so we often had talks. It didn’t take much convincing to take a few photos of her to start painting her portrait. She’s a Lakers fan and wears some Lakers' items everyday. Earrings, socks, jersey, sweaters. I told her I would paint her Lakers earrings with a lot of attention to detail and that kind of convinced her completely.
Well, actually, I started with sketches on paper of Oscar, who sells street tacos, who then invited me to his daughter’s birthday. She was turning 8. They lived somewhere else, but all their family is in the W Adams area, so the birthday was around the corner. I brought her a couple spray cans, and taught her how to use them on a piece of cardboard. Awhile later when I went back to eat tacos, Oscar told me his daughter tagged the side of his house… I said: that’s my girl.
James from the body shop was another subject I painted. Maria who runs a tire shop all by herself, one block away from me, she's always wearing make up in her blue mechanics overalls. So it was a no brainer to paint her, too. There is Danny, a gym coach. I met him while painting a mural on the roof of his gym. So we always talk about what I m working on, so he was aware of my process and the portrait series. No convincing needed. He was honoured.
Keith, chef at newly opened restaurant Alta. I wanted to paint him because he was the first one that talked to me when I sat at the kitchen counter when the restaurant just opened. Then there’s another chef, Gwen, who also seems to be running the kitchen and after seeing Roy Choi’s Broken Bread (I recommend watching) found out she has a similar story, and I included her portrait, too. Manuel is a street fruit vendor, after a few conversations spread over months I found out he was also a luchador and a singer. And probably many other things. Fruit vendors are such an LA thing, painting him is paying homage to the city and all its fruit vendors that color the street corners.
Ron Finley, calls himself the "Gangsta Gardener." I painted a shovel for his project, “Weapons of Mass Creation.” He’s a known figure in the community and does amazing things, planting vegetable gardens on curbsides amongst other things. He’s not directly on my street, couple blocks further south, but he lived in the building accross my studio for 18 years.
Kim is homeless and lives in my back alley. I met her at the gas station where she often cleans windshields. We washed my car together once and now see and greet each other every day. I hope I can help her somehow in the long term. This painting will be my last one. Hopefully it will show all the happiness and suffering of some of LA’s inhabitants in one face.
When was the last time you worked in people's portraits? I think of you as someone who paints gorgeous, photo real birds…
The last one was in 2016, I painted a series of elderlies from Burkina Faso, before that the Tenderloin homeless series in 2014. Portraits series take me about a year and half to produce and then you leave so much of yourself on the canvas, I need to recharge before I can start a new one. It’s a different commitment than painting a pretty bird on a wall... that’s probably why people don’t see a new portrait series every couple months!
What did you take from the whole process? What did you learn about LA, the subjects, yourself?
FOOD, CARS and HUMANITY.