Catalogue statement for Beyond/In Western New York
By John Massier, Curator, Hallwalls
Longtime Buffalo artist, educator and writer Bruce Adams has always been a religious painter. Not the religion of organized faith, but the religion of culture. Over twenty years and several successive series of works, Adams has always dealt with the icons of culture—their conflicted or shifting meanings, from innocuous to paradigm shifting. Long before computers had approached the common status they enjoy today, Adams had appropriated the abstract elegance of the computer chip as a recurring motif. He has always perceived culture as a thing perpetually in flux, where meaning and value accrue and dissipate and his perspective has been to treat these elements as all potentially meaningful (or meaningless) in their own right.
The figure has predominated Adams’ work, not as an effort to exalt the human form (though Adams has often demonstrated his nimble painterly chops) but as one half of the relationship that defines meaning in culture and accentuates how quickly it shifts. Which of Adams’ series articulate a deeper meaning about cultural iconography—his series of Tattooed Women nudes or his Paintings of Pictures of People With Paintings? Are our visual icons more meaningful on our bodies or in our museums? Adams body of work suggests the answer is entirely mutable. When he adopted the images of computer chips and circuitry for an early series on technology, these objects were not depicted as symbolic monsters about to rule our lives, but as baubles, jewels, and, even in one painting, as a pseudo-religious icon held aloft like the body of Christ.
Yet it is only in his most recent series, Divine Beauty, where he has rigorously adopted an overtly religious language within which to realize his works. In this series, his figurative forms are culled from fashion advertisements, from the aloof and seductive women and the lithe, muscular men used to define desire. Models can be said to have evoked this religious aura since the inception of fashion photography a hundred years ago, but Adams is not merely pointing out this quality, but playing with its ubiquity. Throughout these paintings, Adams is riffing off the seductive and the absurd—the lush, rapturous beauty and the false heroic posture; the come hither look as well as the distant stare, vacuous and empty. The homoerotic subtext in many of the paintings is acutely true to both the culture of the early twenty-first century and the 13th century religious art Adams uses as a point of departure. Plus ca meme plus la meme chose could be the add campaign Adams is rendering.
Throughout, it is Adams’ dexterity as a painter that complicates the viewer’s relationship to the work and confounds any singular meaning. Astute religious-style painting is combined with a faster, tossed-off illustrative style, including spray-painted stencils. Installed with straightforward reverence, emerging from darkness, a work like Skeptical Tom—two bare-chested boy toys engaged in mutual exploration that includes bodily penetration—is not merely funny (though it is that) but straightforwardly gorgeous, fully inhabiting an undeniably painterly space outside of the commentary it contains. Adams’ final gesture, framing them all—sometimes ornately—in lustrous gold can sometimes seem to play into all the rapturous falseness or punctuate its comic shallowness.