Lee’s film yields a “complex and multilayered” account which she hopes will instruct her daughter, and future generations of girls, about the struggle that preceded them.
In 1963, Dr. Alessandra Comini saw a small exhibit of Austrian Expressionists. It was her first time viewing the work of Egon Schiele. She described it as “an apocalypse that changed my life.” It put Comini on a path to becoming one of the foremost scholars on Schiele and his oeuvre. Now, at the Neue Galerie through January 2015, Comini has organized an exhibition of Schiele portraits. Roughly 125 drawings, paintings, and sculptures comprise the show.
I had the opportunity to interview Comini on-site at the Neue Galerie, and learned the back story of her journey. Comini related the impact of first seeing the artist’s work. She said of Schiele, “I never saw anybody so frank. He had a searing drawing style. In his content, there was a baring of his soul.”
Comini reached out to Schiele’s sisters by mail, and they responded to her inquires within two weeks. Traveling to Austria, empowered by her fluency in German, she visited the village of Neulengbach where Schiele had been imprisoned in April 1912. Imprinted in her mind, Comini had a visual image of the drawings Schiele had made of his cell during his days of incarceration. Comini sought out the small room with the carved initials of MH, which had belonged to a previous prisoner. She recognized the hallway from drawings of a standing mop and bucket.
Although there were efforts to deter Comini from entering the District Courthouse, which housed the former prison, she slipped in after being turned away. Following a set of stairs down into the cellar, she located Cell #2, where Schiele had been. Everything was identical to Schiele’s imagery, except for a wooden beam that had begun to sag. Comini was the first person to locate and visit Schiele’s jail cell, and she documented the moment with “an old rolleiflex camera.”
Comini views Schiele’s imprisonment as a turning point in both his art and his development as a person. He had been arrested on charges of kidnapping and raping a minor. Schiele was cleared of those allegations, but found guilt of “immorality for public display of indecent imagery.”
During those days of imprisonment, Schiele did his first self-portraits without a mirror. Comini stated that he went from “agony to empathy—maturing.”
Central to Comini’s conception of the exhibition is a room devoted to recreating Schiele’s prison experience. Presented is documentation of the physical space where Schiele was locked up, works on paper, and a small sculpture of a head he made out of bread. Comini specifically chose a composition by Arnold Schöenberg to be the auditory component of the room’s experience. Schöenberg was part of Schiele’s circle of creatives and intellectuals in Vienna, and would be a subject of a portrait in 1917.
Rather than present the works chronologically, Comini chose to hang the show delineating them by categories. The six groups are: Family and Academy; Fellow Artists; Sitters and Patrons; Lovers; Eros; Self-Portraits and Allegorical Self-Portraits.
Upon entering the exhibit, there is a large photo of Schiele. To the right, a long hallway with Schiele’s personal and artistic timeline leads directly to an open view of his painting, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing.
Schiele was born in 1890, in a suburb of Vienna. At the age of sixteen, he was accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he was the youngest student enrolled. In 1907, he began a lifetime friendship with Gustav Klimt, who would mentor and influence him. The following year Schiele was included in his first group show, where his images were seen by the collector Heinrich Benesch, who became a patron and friend.
Klimt invited Schiele to exhibit four paintings at the 1909 “Internationale Kunstschau.” A dissatisfaction with the old guard led Schiele and other artists to form what they termed Neukunstaruppe—the “New Art Group.” At this time, Schiele met the art critic Arthur Roessler, who evolved into a friend, subject, patron, and biographer. Roessler would publish an article on Schiele’s first solo exhibit in Vienna.
By the age of twenty, Schiele had found his voice and personal style. He largely concentrated on self-portraits, which he posed for in front of his mother’s full-length mirror.
The first ten works in the “Family and Academy” room testify to Schiele’s ability as a classical draftsman. Comini suggested that three of the works in this grouping “encapsulated” Schiele’s career. Portrait of Gerti Schiele is clearly indebted to the impact of Klimt, specifically in the richly patterned areas of the subject’s dress.
His 1916 watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper portrait of his father-in-law, Johann Harms, bear the signature markings and iconography that would become identified with Schiele. Specifically, the focus on the hands, knuckles accentuated with sienna and touches of blue—motifs that are repeated in the face.
It is in the oil painting of Harms that a post-prison darkened palette is reflected, with what Comini called “a milder environment.”
The oil, gouache, and charcoal on canvas from 1910, Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovšek, fits Comini’s description of Schiele’s quintessential placement of his subject in “an existential state.” She related, “There is no environment. There is no chair or room. Schiele has stripped away all surrounding. The figure is centralized on a diagonal lean.” As Comini explained, “With Schiele, there is a constant search for identity and authenticity.” She added, “Hostile critics called it ‘pathological portraiture.’” Rather, as Comini pointed out, it was a contrast between “façade and psyche; rational versus irrational; schein to sein (appearance to being).”
In “Sitters and Patrons,” the portrait of Dr. Erwin von Graff stands out due to qualities that render the physician in an eerie and almost sinister way. Von Graff was a gynecologist who provided Schiele with the favor of an abortion for one of the artist’s companions.The face, hands, and left arm of the doctor are mottled and dark brown in places, giving them the quality of burnt flesh. The right arm is stretched across the chest in what Comini calls “a language of gestures.” The bony fingers with prominent knuckles get an additional point of reference, with the accent of a small bandage on the ring finger of the right hand.
As Schiele picked up more commissions, he had to please his patron’s whims and desires. An example is Portrait of Carl Reininghaus (1910), where the sitter is portrayed wearing his lederhosen. Additionally, Comini noted that Schiele “obliged certain collectors with his erotic pictures—which found no lack of clients.” It was an opportunity for Schiele to mine additional income.
In “Lovers” we see studies of Wally, Schiele’s longtime companion, and his wife Edith. Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees captures the essence of what comes to mind for many when they think of Schiele. That of a woman in a pose where legs are accented by colored stockings accompanied by an air of openness and availability.
Although in 1917, Edith would be painted with garters and stockings in, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Seated, Holding Her Right Leg, the flesh of her left thigh exposed, his 1915 full-length portrait revealed a very different story. Comini conveyed that Edith “hated the portrait” as it showed her as “fragile and unsophisticated.” Although the material and folds of the dress are meticulously rendered, the facial expression is blank. Edith’s hands resemble rigid claws. Part of Schiele’s motivation in marrying Edith was the hope that it would delay his army service. Although he saw Edith as a “petite bourgeoisie coquette,” she was of a suitable background for marriage—unlike Wally. Schiele harbored hopes of maintaining relationships with both women, post-nuptials, a concept that was tersely nixed by Wally and Edith.
In the “Eros” section, there are nude girls and women partially clothed, sometimes with lifted skirts or just wearing stockings. Genitals are pronounced. Observed in a Dream (1911) presents a woman, face partially covered, lying on her back while spreading open the labia of her vagina. The Red Host (1911) situates Schiele with a paramour, seated beneath him. A huge, erect phallus extends up from her hand to his mid-chest area, blending in with the alizarin crimson of his shirt. Reclining Woman with Green Stockings (1917) uses black crayon and gouache to ground his figure, giving it a more concrete feeling than his watercolor and pencils works.
Comini construes Schiele’s “obsessive preoccupation” with sex as directly correlated to his father’s deterioration and death from syphilis. The disease, which can be contracted through birth, affected two of his siblings, who died as well. Comini interprets Schiele’s immersion in sexuality as a form of warding of the “specter of syphilis,” akin to a form of “white magic.”
In the “Self-Portraits and Allegorical Self-Portraits,” after the early academic portraits of 1906-1907, the works evolve to the edgy, angular imagery characteristic of Schiele’s approach and technique. Tufts of armpit or pubic hair take on the appearance of electrified wire. Free-floating heads are haloed by white gouache. Hands are highlighted and elongated. A utilization of the brown hues that were apparent in the von Graff portrait is seen. One painted head shows Schiele with a shirt, bow tie, and jacket that melts into a simple line drawing. Triple Self–Portrait combines three facial expressions, while another 1914 piece renders Schiele as the martyred St. Sebastian.
In April of 1918, Edith became pregnant. That same year, Schiele completed The Family (Squatting Couple). Edith would die six months later from the influenza epidemic. Schiele would fall ill as well. He died on the day of Edith’s burial. He was 28 years old.
In The Family, Schiele continued to include visual language from his previous work in his own self-portrayal. He looks directly out at the viewer. His shoulders are tilted, his left arm is exaggerated in length, and his right arm crosses his chest. The result is contorted. Yet, Edith’s body is portrayed more realistically. Her expression is one of sadness, as she looks off into space. The child, who was never born, has a doll-like quality. The face is predominately white, as opposed to the flesh tone of the ear, giving the appearance of a mask.
Schiele’s work had an unmatched intensity. It’s impossible to gauge what path he would have taken if he had lived, or how he would have navigated Nazi rule. By the time of the Anschluss, Schiele would have been middle-aged. Comini noted that even in his youth, Schiele was was “apolitical, unlike Oskar Kokoschka.” The responsibility of fatherhood was about to impact him, and he had ambitious plans to convince Viennese luminaries to join together to create a new unity of the arts.
Just as Sigmund Freud upended and challenged the way society viewed the psyche and sexuality in fin-de-siècle Vienna—Schiele reached the same results with emotionally charged works that reflected his inner turmoil, desires, and fantasies. One hundred years later, they continue to resonate just as vividly in the 21st century.
On October 1, I had the opportunity to preview Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond, with a press walk-through led by the curators, Eugenie Tsai and Rujeko Hockley. In addition, several of the artists were in the galleries to give brief talks and insights into their work.
The Brooklyn Museum prides itself on being in touch with the borough’s wide-ranging neighborhoods. Beyond offering its permanent collection, the museum has shown a commitment to being an active part of the community.
When Tsai and Hockley gave an overview of their process in organizing the exhibit, Tsai noted that the museum has “a history of supporting local artists,” and that Crossing Brooklyn was the “latest iteration of the pursuit.” Over one hundred studio visits were made during the summer of 2013, with an eye to representing artists from diverse backgrounds, ages, career points, and locations. Hockley said, “We were literally everywhere.” Not surprisingly, artist enclaves have sprung up in tandem with affordable real estate. Hockley remarked that there are “now more artists in Bed-Stuy than in Williamsburg.”
The curators related their goal of focusing on artists who were “engaged with the world in a particular kind of way.” As a result, a majority of the artists shown examine questions within a format that expands their work outside typical boundaries. Numerous presentations reveal the artist as an amalgam of creative, cultural observer, and social scientist. In many instances, contemporary digital and Internet tools are engaged. On the other hand, a “traditional” sculpture of a horse is turned into an interactive object, when the viewer pins a “contribution” of their choosing to the statue’s base.
Tsai spoke about concentrating on artists who were working “out of the studio,” and the “variable concept of exploring where art can be made and located.” As a result, several threads ran through the show. One was a consciousness of the environment—our place in it, and how we use it or exploit it.
Mary Mattingly looks at patterns of consumption. Wrapped into a massive object held together by twine, Mattingly combined elements that include personal items, books, electronics, and a sly insertion of an Art in America magazine. The obsession with constantly updating electronics, without regard to the origins of the resources or those tasked with producing them, is alluded to. The extent to which we imbue our belongings with significance is captured in her totemic models.
Mixed Media (Twine, Personal Objects)
Matthew Jensin, who has been termed “a conceptual landscape artist,” was in New Hampshire when he formulated his series Winter Walks. On daily outings, he collected twigs, leaves, branches and related ecological materials in order to chart events, the weather, and his emotional state.
On the urban front, Yuji Agematsu gathered detritus that he found on the streets of the lower East Side, Soho, and Crown Heights. He explained his process as selecting pieces that “spoke to him.” Agematsu then archived, “cured,” and transformed his findings into a record of artifacts reflecting contemporary society. They were pinned to a foamcore sheet, and then laid on a table. Like Jensin, he reacts to seeing “elements of art” that occur in everyday life.
Zachary Fabri engages in what he calls “walking as art action.” A residency in Brazil brought him to an iron mine site. The ubiquitous presence of the mineral, red hematite, became the portal through which he examined the interaction between man and natural resources.
The reflection upon personal and cultural identity, and questions arising from that construct, are central to an installation by Brendan Fernandes. He talked about his background as an ethnic Indian, who was born in Kenya and moved to Canada in 1989. He used the jumping off point of both African masks found in a museum setting, and “replica” masks sold by street vendors, to delve into the perceived “exoticism” of Africa. Part of that investigation including a look at “migration and movement, cultural economy, hierarchy and language.” Top on his list was the initial question of what do the masks embody, once they are “emptied of their context and content.”
The Obama Skirt Project, envisioned by Aisha Cousins, is an investigation into how African-American women were impacted by the election of Barrack Obama. Employing the African tradition of using textiles to “commemorate” a specific event or person, Cousins started her project by wearing dresses incorporating Obama’s visage for a twelve-month period. She sought out African tailors located in Brooklyn to sew the articles of clothing. Cousins then expanded the scope of the undertaking by inviting women to have their own garments made.
The Story Skirt Project, 2010
Yoko Inoue also engaged in community collaboration. In Brazil, she began with the the Portuguese word corrente, which means “chain.” Inoue constructed fabric chains through an interaction with residents. They were encouraged to give her a scrap of fabric from their clothing, in exchange for a cup of free ice cream that she purchased from a local vendor. Inoue set up a workstation in front of the shop, where the swap took place several times per week.
Fabric Chains (Detail)
Reaching into the heart of the Brooklyn equation was the tableau by Pablo Helguera. It enshrined the personal history of East New York resident Susannah Mushatt Jones, daughter of Alabama sharecroppers, who is 115 years old. Viewable through a window are objects chosen by Helguera from the museum’s collection, which are dated 1899, the year of Jones’s birth. Along with these items are personal mementos that belong to Jones, such as her high school photograph.
For those seeking painting, Cynthia Daignault provides 365 oil on linen canvases, each 10 inches by 15 inches. They are set up on three walls which form an enveloping U-shape. Initiated on a July day in 2012, when a person close to Daignault began a prison sentence, the endeavor became a meditation on the passage of time. The paintings are placed in chronological order. Daignault captures specific moments in the particulars of the sky, which mirror the subtle gradations that take place in one’s daily life, often overlooked or taken for granted.
I love you more than one more day, 2013
Oil on Linen (Detail)
Each Canvas: 10″ x 15″
The press release for the show qualified the work in Crossing Brooklyn as “nontraditional.” The exhibit may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and the use of the term “Major Survey” may have precipitated some pushback. Regardless, there is plenty to contemplate.
Crossing Brooklyn: Art From Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond
Through January 4 at the Brooklyn Museum
Check calendar for performances and public programs
In September, “Derrick Adams: Live and in Color,” opened at the Tilton Gallery in Manhattan. I sat down with Adams in Brooklyn, to talk about his work and career trajectory. We spoke at length, and went off on a few tangents—including the Koch Brothers, The Wiz, colonialism, and the leadership of Bayard Rustin.
At 44, Adams has plenty of exhibitions under his belt, both nationally and internationally. He received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, and has been in several shows at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Adams is included in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, which is currently at the Walker Art Center. He took part in Performa 05 and Performa 13. Currently a visiting artist at NYU, and a former member of the painting faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Adams brings insights from his years at Pratt Institute, The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the Masters of Fine Art Program at Columbia University.
When I met Adams on the evening of his opening, he was dressed in pants and shoes that connected him to his collages. At our interview, only his camouflage printed socks spoke to his strong interest in color, patterns, and fabric.
Adams grew up in Baltimore, surrounded by a nurturing family that appreciated art. His hometown, known as “Monument City,” gave rise to his interaction with architecture as foundation, and led to his ongoing use of “bricks” as a motif. Adams’s upbringing among female relatives impacted his visual sensibility and frame of reference. He said, “When I think about flowers, I think about my aunt’s house—not Monet.” Being surrounded by a “collective consciousness of color and textiles,” whether it was his grandmother making “curtains and shelf-liners” or an aunt’s favorite scheme of mauve and grey hues, “set a tone.”
These concepts of a “formal response to how it is to decorate,” would translate into Adams’s room sculptures, which examine structure and the use of space in terms of self-reflection.
Adams spoke incisively about an integral part of his rearing—what he identified as the requisite need to acquire a “double consciousness.” He explained the lesson he absorbed as a young boy. It was the knowledge that “black folks had of themselves,” and the alternate view. That was, “The world looks at you as a monster—the other.” Adams gave the analogy of a young, black male child “skipping and then running,” only to have that simple activity construed as flight from an illusory crime. The need for an ongoing “dual identity,” as a means of survival for the adult black male, is a theme that repeatedly manifests itself in Adams’s work. Explored is a representation of an outer appearance in conflict with the truth of an inner psychology. Adams sees the majority of his work “residing in the idea of how outside influences impact the perception of self.”
Spending summers in New York City, with relatives, prepared Adams for his Pratt Institute experience. However, the educational structure yielded insights beyond studio art. Adams was the sole black student in his program. Speaking about the white students, Adams noted that they were not getting a “whole picture of the spectrum of cultural dynamics that include or don’t include.” Yet, Adams maintained that he “didn’t feel isolated.” He said, “I wanted certain key elements of intellectualism. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to talk.” When I asked him if he felt compelled to push back on the lack of diversity he responded, “As an artist you just want to make art.” Adams connected to black artists through studio visits and other forms of interface.
The model of teaching that Adams encountered at Columbia motivated him to take a totally different approach in interactions with the students he would mentor. He is clear that it is “okay not to make what people understand.” Adams said, “I want to get my mind blown. Most professors want to be validated.” He added dryly, “Professors may look like you, but that doesn’t mean that they are supporting your point of view.”
While serving as curator for Rush Arts Gallery in Chelsea (1996-2009), Adams put the same philosophy into play, intentionally expanding his horizons to artists he didn’t already know about; broadening the curatorial mission from “emerging artists of color” to “underrepresented artists.”
Adams conversed about his process as an artist. He sees the act of creating as “visceral,” and the aftermath as a period of “academic analyzation.” Adams stated, “When you make a work, it shows people how you digest your ideas. Everything you’ve absorbed is realized in the work.”
Clearly, Adams relishes the act of art making—whether it is in the realm of performance, video, sculpture, or works on paper. He contemplated, “Being an artist doesn’t offer anything any more beyond peace of mind from doing the work. It’s therapeutic. For me, what I like about being an artist is [that] it comes from—and is separate—from you. It must be actual and out of your head.”
Adams is conscious of how his multifaceted artistic endeavors operate on the larger stage of the art world. Although Adams said he doesn’t see himself as a political artist, he did acknowledge, “Everything I make is a socially engaging work. I’m always questioning everything.” He emphasized, “I’m trying to pose questions for people to look at…by pulling back the curtain.” This gets back to Adams underlying premise—in art and in life: “Everything that we are is based on a specific construction.” Although Adams conveyed that he looks at art “as an intellectual journey,” he is equally concerned with how his art is presented, both in terms of the medium and the execution.
In his current show, Adams brings his exploration of race and “cultural context” to the table. Adams parsed his perspectives, in tandem with “the viewer bringing their stuff.” That can include the possibilities of the audience not understanding what they see, responding to what they perceive as a narrative, or having a strictly emotional experience. Adams described the latter as a “translatable feeling of, ‘I know that. I know what that’s about. I know how to use that information.’”
The exhibit is comprised of sixteen pieces. Six are mixed media sculptures. The remaining ten are mixed media collages on paper.
All are viewed through the framing device of a television set from the 1980s, models with faux wood paneling and large black knobs bisected by silver rectangular handles. The invitation had a reproduction of the test pattern developed by the Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). That layout forms the background and palette for the collages.
Adams’s appellation for his exhibition plays on the tagline that promoted TV shows evolving from their black and white status. Specifically, it is a reference to black entertainers entering the landscape of American broadcast television. Adams discussed the genesis of his imagery as having its origin in sitcoms, dramas, and newscasts featuring African-American characters—“morphed together, and communicating in a language that is “animated and larger than life.” Aware of the visual attraction of his vibrant tones, Adams said, “If I make artwork, you will be drawn to it.”
We returned to the themes of “content and context” as opposed to formalism; “surface” versus content; the use of “structural dynamics.” Yet at the core, stripping away the intellectualization, was a recognition of what Adams called the “formulaic image”—a representation of African-Americans based on a “turn-up the volume and exaggerated” portrayal. He terms it the “duplicitous presence.”
Talking about the influence of American black culture, Adams maintained, “It takes twenty-five to thirty years before it becomes diluted and filtered into the mainstream.” Adams underscored the “power of the media to represent.” The problem lies in the lack of veracity. Inevitably, that representation is stronger than an actual “engagement.”
Adams uses the metaphor of television as a “voyeuristic lens,” as well as a “portal.” In the Boxhead series, which Adams defined as “not gender specific,” he spoke about “attitudes and posturing, geometric forms,” and the use of “four perspectives in one object.” I related to the sculptures as female, reading them as a contemplation on black female identity, specifically focused on the hair as a reflection of self.
The works are displayed on cardboard boxes. When I asked Adams about that choice, he defined it as an “anti-process action,” an alternative to the pristine pedestal traditionally used to “support art.” Adams considered it the “simplistic part of the piece,” and a nod to the concept of “things being unpacked and presented.”
The first collage we discussed was, I Come in Peace. A female black figure is portrayed in a crawling stance—or what could be construed as a sexual position. Wearing a leopard skin bikini, her hair is fashioned into a molded coiffure, reminiscent of a lion’s mane. Planes of colors divide the face, echoing the Boxheads. Solid bands of color from the television spectrum vocabulary are combined with snippets of the American flag (operating simultaneously as symbol and design), and camouflage material.
Adams sees the image as a “powerful” acknowledgment of the woman’s “self-expression.” She is conveying the concept, “Regardless of how you see me, I am offering myself as an idea.” For Adams, it boils down to the query, “How do you want to be known?” It’s Adams, putting it out there, challenging the spectator with the premise, “Is this a black woman in control of her options,” or an exploited performer buying into the “dynamics of a specific system of operation and financial gain?” Adams recognizes the ongoing debate (e.g., Beyoncé’s use of the backdrop, I Am a Feminist), as well as the inherent contradictions. I Come in Peace fulfills Adams’s goal of grabbing the viewer via an “emotional experience—the feeling of it.”
In King for a Day, Adams revisits the issue of African-American masculinity within American life. The figure is dressed in a white shirt with multicolored polka dots, incorporating a square overlay of kente cloth. A hand holds the string to twelve balloons. Seven are solid yellow, with smiles and rounded black eyes. Five are formed from the kente cloth, and have frowns and Xs for eyes. Adams describes it as his “riff on the idea of comedy and tragedy, outer appearances, and the duality of representation.”
Fun and Games places the black male figure center stage, as game show host. He is surrounded by money, fragments of a Monopoly board, chance cards, and the possibility of landing in jail as part of life’s lottery. His demeanor presents a vigorous presence, but the subtext questions what Adams calls “strategies of success.” What does American life hold for the average black man? Does everyone really get an equal turn at the board, or are the dice loaded? The jail square brings to mind the stats that African-American men are imprisoned at much higher rates than their white male counterparts.
Commenting on the interweaving of entertainment and violence as an American preoccupation, Show Down examines beliefs and attitudes about guns. Adams pointed out, “People want to see those images on television, but not in real life.” The use of “bang flags” places the gun in the realm of a vaudeville gag, rather than as an instrument of lethal force. However, in reality, any connection of a black male with a firearm is interpreted as ominous, while a white man “bearing arms” is merely invoking his Second Amendment rights.
Underlying concerns parsed in “Live and in Color” can be seen in Adams’s previous works, both sculptural and two-dimensional. Dating back to 2008, Adams utilized the brick metaphor in combination with other objects to create statements. In Four in One (The Same League), several years before the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, Adams incorporated the article of clothing that would become a flash point when a witness described Martin as, “A black male, wearing a dark colored hoodie.”
In The Statue, the bricks are overlaid on the persona of boxer Mike Tyson. Adams said he chose Tyson, “as Warhol used Monroe—for visual recognition.” Using the iconography of Tyson’s body like a “Michelangelo sculpture,” Adams scrutinizes how people were observing the young Tyson as “surface.” Altering specific elements of the traditional “weigh in,” the scale is transformed into a marble platform. Adams called it, “an allusion to the David.” Raising a number of questions Adams asked rhetorically, “Is it glory, sorrow, or objectification?” Hovering in the same the territory is the legacy of slavery—and the black male body in that narrative.
In his works on paper, Adams’s visual vocabulary consistently remains linked, even when using muted, neutral, and earth tones. In Black American Gothic two women are portrayed—one in a skirt, the other in pants. Both are wearing identically patterned shirts in different colors. Although they feel reminiscent of ancient Egyptian figure portraits, the torsos are rendered completely in side view. They each have an arm composed of a construction frame, carrying what could be construed as a purse, bearing the familiar brick pattern. A small African figure with a yellow hard hat stands on the uppermost grid line.
Stepping Out incorporates sewing patterns, architecture, home design, and fragmented heads. This time, male and female figures are designated as the forms. Road signs, especially the traffic light, tie in with elements from Adams’s Video Interludes.
Concerning his performance and video work, Adams referenced “learning how to think in a multi-dimensional way.” He embraces the premise of “embodiment through a complete practice—not just one source.” And if the results aren’t successful, that’s okay with Adams. He said, “You have to see it not work.”
In his videos, Adams frequently combines word usage, simplified language, and the format of educational television. He mentioned the influence of Jim Henson’s puppets, and how they were able to disseminate information that may otherwise not have been readily palatable. Adams stages a video segment titled, M is For… comparing well-known statements from Martin Luther King, Bob Marley, and Malcolm X, in a beginner’s format. It’s what he calls the “rearranging of familiar stuff.” His hope is that people will see those familiar things in a new way.
As our talk wound down, Adams reflected upon sharing his education through his art and deciphering it in a way that was understandable. He said, “We all have exposure to the same information. The difference is in how the artist presents it, and between what people are ready for versus what they need to know.”
As a young artist, Adams met Elizabeth Catlett. He asked her for advice. Her response was, “Make work.” Clearly, for Adams, there is satisfaction in working out his ideas through his art. He referred to that as, “the physical gratification of what existed in my mind.” He sees his oeuvre as a synthesis of what he took away from his academic experience, and objects from his background and personal history. He phrased it as, “My work is about y’all.”
Notwithstanding his success, Adams is clear about his objectives. He affirmed, “I don’t want to be a celebrity artist. I want to be known for my ideas.”
This article is from the series “Evolution of an Artist”
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