Picture perfect, Mark Lavatelli, Feb. 24, 2006

Art about art is a popular subject. It allows artists to focus on a world close to their hearts.

Bruce Adams makes paintings based on his own photographs of people in museums looking at paintings. Employing photo-realist technique, he examines the connection between photography and painting.

The artist isolates the paintings and their viewers by filling the rest of his canvases with blank, white gallery walls. Though demonstrating skillful fidelity to the camera’s image, Adams ultimately makes the case that painting transcends the limitations of photography.

At the same time, Adams’ exhibition at Insite Gallery, titled “Paintings of Pictures of People With Paintings,” documents contemporary museum behavior. Many viewers take photographs, listen to audio guides or discuss the paintings. Those works that have posed subjects are less successful because, though well-painted, they call attention to themselves as being from the amateur, family-vacation genre.

Adams cleverly uses the trapezoidal shape of the depicted painting – the painting within the painting – to define the angled plane of the wall, while the elimination of details around the human figures highlights their realism, much like the isolation of the subject in a Richard Avedon portrait photograph. These figures are rendered with carefully brushed strokes or veiled behind a soft-focus haze. In some instances, Adams combines these approaches in a single figure, such as the man on the right in the monumental triptych “Five People Looking at Two Paintings.”

In many paintings there is a subtle connection between the viewers and the painting they view or pose with. In “Eric With Painting,” the exactitude with which Eric’s thinning hair is painted makes one conscious of the more broadly summarized hair of Berthe Morisot’s “Lacemaker,” itself beautifully foreshortened. In the painting of the people in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, the color of their clothes, dark with occasional brighter accents, reflects the colors of the Pollock drip painting they view.

In a less kind comparison, the natural proportions of the woman in “Haydee With Painting” is in notable contrast to the extremely elongated figure shown in the accompanying painting. In “Two Women With Painting” it is the style of the depicted painting – in this case, a soft, hazy Monet landscape – that is echoed. Adams fuses and blurs the contours of the women, as though seen through an impressionistic haze.

In one painting, the juxtaposition of subjects and painting are so intriguing that it is the exception to the rule that the more satisfying works are the candid, unposed subjects. “Four Women With Painting” shows obviously posed Asian women standing before a Frida Kahlo self-portrait from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery collection. One of the women looks at us from the same angle and holds a similar expression as seen on Kahlo’s face in her self-portrait. The similarity is striking and immediate. It elicits a question: Does the juxtaposition make the Asian woman look more Mexican, or does it make Kahlo look more Asian?

Even when these kind of internal references don’t exist, Adams always shows finesse in compositional balance and in paint handling. In one example, Adams skillfully reproduces the blurred motion of a couple as they point at what appears to be a work by John Singer Sargent. In another showing a pointing figure, the composition is rigorously controlled.

In a number of cases, Adams’ format is radically stretched out horizontally in narrow, friezelike proportions. With these cases, the observing people are set at one end and the observed painting at the other. It happens in “Woman With Painting,” a scene shot in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., with Leonardo da Vinci’s “Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci” at the far left and the viewers at the far right. As the eye moves through the slot of white space between – the very path of the sightlines of the viewers – a tremendous tension between people and object is created.

And that white space isn’t flat and neutral. Instead, Adams gives it a vigorous impasto handling that energizes the eye on its long horizontal journey. Here, and in many other paintings, white space is substituted for “unnecessary” photographic information, in keeping with the painter’s refusal to reveal the entirety of the photographic source. (The paint-handling also demonstrates the painter’s ability to imitate another sort of painting altogether, minimalism. Think of Robert Ryman’s white paintings.)

Adams’ paintings, though a kind of photo-realism, show a formal consistency that puts the emphasis on the painting as painting. These paintings, as Adams says in his artist statement, reveal “the profound and often subtle communicative nature of painting.