The Visible Turn: The Painting of Arnaud Adami
No kid ever dreamed of growing up and driving for Uber, styling for Stitch Fix or ferrying pizza for Deliveroo. That is, in part, because none of these companies existed before 2009. In addition, and despite its much-touted “flexibility,” the gig economy was never designed for building careers or creating opportunities for workers to distinguish themselves one iota.
Gig work instead, offers a perfect route to invisibility in what nefariously has come to be termed “ghost work.” (It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population in the EU and the U.S., approximately 162 million people, engage in such work.) Having experienced similar invisibility firsthand, the savvy young French artist Arnaud Adami resolved to turn his attention to visualizing a symbolic portion of the global precariat. While attending Paris’ prestigious Beaux-Arts—and working at a factory to make ends meet—the 27 seven year old painter resolved to highlight the faces, bodies and loudly colored outfits of “those we see but do not look at.”
Adami began working at a warehouse at age 19. After spying the makings of a dead end job, he got a jump on the Great Resignation, quit blue-collar work and landed a place at Bourges’ École Nationale Supérieure d’Art in central France. A few years later, he enrolled at the National School of Fine Arts in the French capital. Observing the “omnipresence of all these bicycle delivery men, who represent a large part of contemporary workers,” he delivered himself of what can only be called a eureka moment. “When I arrived in the city I spotted a new kind of gig economy worker: the delivery riders,” he explained to one journalist. “I told myself that I was going to paint them into art history.”
Struck by the ubiquity of gig laborers but also by the incongruity of their social invisibility—no social status is lower than that of someone who is routinely seen but never acknowledged—Adami made a painter’s note of a crucial paradox. Gig companies burden workers with distinctive uniforms without legally acknowledging being their employers. “They wear super flashy, super neon outfits, so there is a huge contrast between their social rank and their visibility in the streets,” the artist says about the couriers he turns into metaphorical “liberators according to the fixed values of art history.” “Also,” Adami explains, “for a painter, these colors are super interesting: the blues, the yellows, the oranges, it’s magnificent.”
Though he began by indiscriminately accosting delivery people on the street, Adami settled on a method to capture both figures and costumes in a way that at once dignifies his subjects and the age-old oil on canvas tradition he defiantly harnesses. “It’s complicated to make the models pose for three weeks,” he says ruminating on his failures to connect with vulnerable workers and undocumented migrants during his first encounters. “So [now] I take a picture of the model I want to paint and then do some photomontage with Photoshop.”
Adami’s current paintings can essentially be broken up into three sorts: the portrait, the genre scene and the still life. His portraits of tired couriers are intimate enough to be recognizable—consider the anti-equestrian canvas Quality Burger (2023)—even as their subjects are made identifiable mostly by their gear and company logo. Genre works, such as the contemporary street scene Grande Porte (2023), function much like Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662): elevated pictures from everyday life, they depict figures at work or play—though in Adami’s case, the setting is work of a particularly alienating and strenous kind.
Adami’s still lifes, for their part, resemble the nature mortes of Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin. Take Still Life I(2023), for instance. An accretion of brightly branded shirts, sweathshirts, jackets, helmets and carrier bags, the canvas achieves a unity of tone, color and form that recalls an earlier age of painted tabletop displays of gold, silver and pearls—but in reverse. To paraphrase Marcel Proust on Chardin, such paintings pack telltale items with rich socioeconomic meaning—every one of them highly impersonal in Adami’s case—that is summoned wondrously “out of the everlasting darkness in which they have been interred.”
Adami’s repeated references to art history are fundamental to the artist’s attempt to visualize real people tucked away by depersonalizing social processes. “My primary objective is to highlight the workers, the working world in the broadest sense,” he says by way explaining his use of canonical painting styles to ennoble his subjects. “And the supreme enhancement is the [style of] painting that is either Christian or the paintings of a king. I associate the codes [surrounding] the portraiture of kings [in order] to highlight these trades that I paint.”
To cite another Frenchman, Adami’s achievement perfectly illustrates Marcel Duchamp’s own creative dictum: art making is making the invisible visible.