Bruce Adams’ sprawling midcareer retrospective at the University at Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery affords ample opportunity to see his development as an artist, to compare work from different periods and to applaud his achievement. The 70-plus paintings that make up “Half Life, 1980-2006” reveal both skillful technique and a keen intellect, using subject matter as diverse as computer microchips, archaeological digs, tattooed women, people viewing paintings, men at work and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The range of subjects is initially somewhat bewildering, but representations of the human figure form a unifying element. Adams concentrates on the way the figure illuminates and communicates how culture defines beauty and how images are used to construct meaning. His core belief that “art is the research and development of culture” explains his stylistic choices.
Adams shows command of both realistic and expressionistic styles. Many paintings, especially the ones on paper, are done with remarkable brevity, assurance and inventive color. He also has an avidity to appropriate imagery from many sources, from fashion magazines to art history. Close-ups of faces of male models with lush patterned backgrounds in gold frames imitate the look of icon paintings in the recent “Divine Beauty” series.
“Woman on Couch With Boy” is based on Velazquez’s Cupid and Venus. Adams makes it contemporary by the acid green shadows on the body and the woman’s tattoos. This painting concerns issues of nudity, using body ornament to define an alternative lifestyle and exploring conventions of beauty. The tattooed model exemplifies her own definition of beauty instead of being objectified by male viewers.
Although this reflects a feminist viewpoint, some works are more traditional. “The Daughters of Niobe and Gladys” equates the fourth century Greek Dying Niobid statue (a nude woman on one knee with her head thrown back and her right arm reaching toward her back) with a classic pinup pose of Marilyn Monroe.
If he seems to be equivocal about the female nude, Adams effectively encapsulates the art museum experience in the series “Paintings of Pictures of People with Painting.” Here, Adams astutely uses the trapezoidal shape of the depicted painting to define the angled plane of the wall, and he surrounds the human figures with fields of white that highlight their realism much like a Richard Avedon portrait photograph. “Pictures of People with Painting — Vatican, Rome” wryly illustrates the tourists’ need to employ photography as a substitute for real experience.
Although we expect artists to be up-to-date, when Adams echoes art world trends such as post-modernism, the paintings, though skillfully executed, begin to feel cluttered. A painting from the “Research and Development” series, “Artist Re-Creation,” combines three iconic images: a computer chip, the Dying Niobid statue and a Pre-Columbian Mexican vase. The painting suggests that culture is a complex construct of artifacts and ideal historical images filtered through the contemporary world of technology, but the multiple images create a sense of confusion.
Adams is at his best when his subject allows his painting ability to be on the forefront, rather than at the service of clever content. The tattooed women, the “Paintings of Pictures of People With Paintings” and the recent “Divine Beauty” series are the most satisfying. •
WHAT: “ Bruce Adams, Half Life, 1980- 2006”
WHEN: Through March 25
WHERE: University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, Martha Jackson Place off Englewood
INFO: 829- 3754