Updated: October 22, 2010, 6:36 AM
This is part of a weekly ongoing series on Beyond/In Western New York.
The moment you enter the darkly lit room on the second floor of the Starlight Studio and Gallery on Delaware Avenue, the strong and unmistakable smell of insence hits your nostrils.
The oil paintings on the wall, in gilded frames and arranged like stations of the cross, are starkly illuminated by focused beams of light. But instead of halo-ringed figures of saints and apostles, the majority of those frames contain meticulous renderings of male fashion models whose likenesses were pulled from magazine fashion advertisements.
Welcome to the chapel of BRUCE ADAMS, whose religioconsumerist critique “Divine Beauty” ranks as one of the more overt and subversive statements in the current version of Beyond/In Western New York, an exhibition that elsewhere favors more subtle and contemplative brands of expression.
This fertile territory has been tread by many an artist over the centuries, though perhaps never with such a laser-focus on the advertising industry or in quite an effective environmental installation as Adams has created here. The endlessly reinterpreted image of a fresh-faced St. Sebastian bound to a tree and shot through with arrows has, for instance, appeared in the work of Louise Bourgeois and Derek Jarman— as well as Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams. The latter two, according to one critic writing in the London Independent, saw the martyr as a “late-antique rentboy.”
Though not at all shying away from the homoerotic, Adams is going in a different direction. “Divine Beauty” is his attempt to draw a direct line between the depiction of saintly male (and some female) figures in religious art and the way fashion models are posed and portrayed in Vogue or Vanity Fair.
Speaking to The News in August, Adams explained what he was after with the series.
“I saw a similarity between these fashion icons and religious icons, the way they’re posed and the way they’re presented,” Adams said. “Given that consumerism is sort of the path to fulfillment of the 20th and 21st century, I saw a parallel between the iconography of advertising and the iconography of religion.”
Indeed, that point is hard to miss. That’s especially true when considering the exhibition’s centerpiece, a flesh-filled, shock-and-awe triptych advertising madness that simultaneously evokes the Renaissance frescoes of Corregio and the music video for Kanye West’s “Power.” That piece alone—because it flirts with kitsch so effectively —is worth the trip to the renovated gallery space, which was created just for this exhibition.
It also has to be said that the line between saints and models is drawn exceedingly well in the literal sense. Adams is an excellent painter who has clearly poured a great deal of studio time into this ongoing series, and the quality of the work shows that.
Also embedded in the work is a contemplation of what it means for a modern-day painter to focus on the male figure. The series, Adams said, came out of a conversation in 2005 with the artist Sadko, who was upset that some who viewed his work assumed he was gay simply because he painted the male figure. Adams, who is straight, seems also to be critiquing the human propensity to make such an assumption with this series, which presents the sexualized male physique without a hint of apology.
It seems Adams is critiquing religion itself just as much as he’s calling out the consumerism of late, employing the language of one to skewer the other. It’s a clever approach, as unsettling to Anna Wintour as it might be to the pope.