Simulate Direct Experience With Freeing Marks
“Art doesn’t change the world, it changes the patterns on your draperies.”
—Bruce Adams, December 2006
Sitting on a bus on a Los Angeles freeway in the summer of 2005, Bruce Adams tells me he was once a working magician. In my recollection, I executed a perfect bug-eyed, jelly-necked, head-rolling double take. I couldn’t have been more surprised and impressed had he told me he’d worked his way through art school as a gigolo on the Côte d’Azur. Adams maintains his perennial straight-man guise:
“You didn’t know? Have we never talked about this?”
Uh, no, Bruce, I would remember that. Stupidly presuming that his days as a professional trickster are long gone, the skeptic in me pummels him with questions to pry all the hidden explanations from his magician’s soul, to fully reveal the inner lining in a bag of tricks. Adams concedes to magic’s complete and utter fakery, but he resolutely adheres to the magician’s code of silence, resisting all persuasion to give up the illusionist ghost.
It was the moment I understood Adams’s commitment to the principles of illusion: its construction and maintenance, its perpetual value.
“The painting is just in the service of the thought.”
Adams has spent the last few decades as a dedicated husband, father, art educator, and pusherman trafficking in illusion. While he has also produced installations and performance pieces, painting has remained his preferred illusion delivery system. Like any great magician, Adams is deft and seamless in the illusion he proffers while unconcerned that you believe in its reality. He prefers that you share in the knowledge of its essential unreality and thereby find a route toward certain truths about culture and the application of meaning.
As a magician, Adams knows the basic tenets of misdirection, convincing the audience that something is occurring here when it’s really occurring elsewhere. At a glance, Adams appears to be a figurative painter, but is he? Or is this his most rudimentary illusion? Over the course of his “half life,” Adams has eschewed a definitive personal style, opting to define his method of the moment according to the ideas at play. Working in series, he has altered his style between different series of work, making use of a basic modernist language—dominated by the figure, but not about the figure—as a flexible tool to service a postmodern schematic. The prevalence of figuration in the work obscures the fact that his work is actually conceptual art in a more familiar outfit.
At the core of Adams’s practice is a notion that he admits “keeps weaseling itself back into my work,” which is René Magritte’s famous assertion from The Treason of Images that the pipe is not a pipe, not object or even representation, but illusion. If it outlasts the garbage heap or is eventually unearthed—as happens in Adams’s Archeology series—it becomes something else altogether: artifact, historical remnant, poetic allusion to the past. Functional pottery becomes cherished antiquity. Even in our own time, artworks of geometric abstraction eventually grace the latest designer housewares.
To Adams, all things in culture—every object, every act—have been fair game and are treated as equitable components of observation and commentary. A cultural object is a cultural object is a cultural object, subject to interpretations that are never fixed. Or they are fixed temporarily, lasting just long enough to stretch to the next version of itself. Adams doesn’t question the notion of lasting value so much as he doubts that meaning holds itself together in perpetuity.
Mutation of meaning is not exclusive to specific objects, but applies to broader scenarios as well, as evidenced by two series whose meanings have shifted since they were first produced. In the Technology series from more than twenty years ago, Adams conflates the newness of computer technology as something to be feared and revered. Couples admire it like a newborn and dread it as a monster. It is hoisted as a communion host, treated as a fashion accessory, and linked to the mask that veils one’s persona. In one work, socialites sit and admire the abstracted chip for its exotic newness.
In his Tattoo series, Adams skillfully renders a series of contemporary genre paintings, undermining the history of the male gaze by depicting a series of tattooed women asserting their own versions of beauty. These works intimately address the construction of self-image through the physical application of images on the self. At the time of their rendering, tattoos were still part of a nebulous subculture, a fringe iconography rarely seen and by no means commonplace.
Neither series has lost its edge over time, but our perception of them changes. We have become so intimate with technology (as Adams had once suggested) that these works, prescient in their time, seem quaint and obvious today. And the Tattoo series—produced in a style that references Diego Velasquez and Franz Hals—seems even more romantic and sentimental today, when its subject matter has been mainstreamed into complete ubiquity.
How astute are Adams’s illusionistic skills? Take Paintings of Pictures of People, a recent series of high-realist renderings of gallery and museum-goers looking at and posing with famous paintings. It would be easy—and a mistake—to dismiss the series as a figurative sight gag too clever for its own good. The only elements rendered are the viewers and the objects viewed, as though to hammer home the obvious point indicated in the title of the series.
Well, yes. But the most interesting painterly action is not in the realistically rendered viewers. Or the accurately mimicked masterworks. Or in the occasional sleight of hand, such as the photographic blur of a viewer using a camera. In many of these works, the photo-realist rendering is belied by the brushstrokes rolling around in all the white. In person, the eye is lured toward this clamorous emptiness and the series moves beyond a bland observation about people looking at pictures of people and implies the act of looking itself, the space within which it occurs, and the psychological and emotional baggage we throw into the equation.
The most straightforward representative work Adams has produced is also high concept, a representational guise layered over a conceptual premise. Painted from source photographs and faithfully replicating the included masterworks, the series doubles and triples its fakery. What appears to be accurately depicted is intensely illusory.
Perhaps because it so radically undercuts its representational guise, Paintings of Pictures of People is the starkest example of the Adams oeuvre of working within entirely illusionistic space. Is there a sense of place here, or just a sense of space? The figures and the pictures they observe don’t appear to be anywhere, though we presume them to be in a museum. Instead, they float in a realm of pure illusion, disconnected from anything that might be perceived as real.
Through his various series, we see that this is an Adams signature, a sly and persistent deception. The figures and objects found in his works inhabit the pure space of the painting more than any convincingly rendered reality of their own. Even in those few works where we discern a horizon line or something akin to a background relating to the foreground, a blatant sense of illusion pervades. In both Woman on Couch with Boy(1998, p. 27) and Woman with Dog (1997–1998, p. 52), figures in the foreground cast a slight shadow on what appears to be a background, what might be walls behind the couches. Or they might just as accurately be the imaginative space of the painting. Like the white walls in Paintings of Pictures of People, these blank walls are filled with painterly gusto, more imaginative than real.
“When no particular style is called for, I go for my default style, a kind of gestural shorthand . . . style doesn’t matter here, so I’ll just paint like signing my name.”
A realm of pure illusion is the obvious choice for the magician/trickster, but it’s also the only space that can effectively accommodate the speed with which Adams treats ideas, the rapid-fire collision of line and color. We see this in the entirety of Adams’s practice—the quantity of series and of works within each series—but also seemingly in every image. It often feels as though Adams is expressing himself quickly, with a spontaneity that closely approximates the speed at which he’s thinking, and perhaps the speed at which we should be ingesting the images.
While there are exceptions—the tightly illustrated earlier works, the social realist mural Labor Matters (2003, pg. 58), the Paintings of Pictures of People—most of Adams rendering is fast and loose. Time and again, he depicts what he needs to while simultaneously allowing the painting to be a painting, a sometimes messy confluence of lines and colors that has to be allowed to play out its visual rapture.
Consider any of the Men at Work paintings. Men bend over some concentrated work while a pinup graces the background. They seem to have been painted in fifteen-minute bursts, with just enough resolution of line to get the point across and otherwise awash with a casual immediacy and playful set of hues. They are telling examples of Adams’s gestural and compositional skills—in Men at Work #4 (1994–95, p. 30), note the perfect set of the eyes, the mouth clasping the pipe, and the hands at work, all illuminating the self-satisfied concentration of the figure. Meanwhile, phallic rocket models and a smudgy pinup lend an aura of dumb masculinity, made more sardonic by the lines of the computer chip image behind the man, as though a bright idea were floating somewhere in the back of his head.
Rarely discussed as humorous, Adams’s work is often quite funny. No small number of works could be accompanied by a rim shot and cymbal splash. They often combine the cheap sight gag with clever, painterly juxtaposition. Looking at Vase #3 (1986, p. 48), we see a relaxed composition of a couple in bed playing with their baby, abstract art on the wall, ubiquitous vase form in the background. The diaper and legs of the infant are an inverted version of the top of the vase, affirming the equation of baby as cultural/fetish object. It’s placid and serene, with a ludicrous underbelly.
In the Fish and Bicycle series, Adams is riffing off the remark of Australian journalist Irina Dunn that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and the works are painted in a furiously ribald manner, stark color schemes accentuating the sexual politics at play. Men are depicted alternately as banal underwear models (sans underwear), submissives, or, in Fish and Bicycle #12 (1997–1998, p. 17), so preening with absurd masculinity that the image seems ready to pop the canvas in a glut of testosterone. In Fish and Bicycle #11 (1997–1998, p. 16), a topless woman poses beside a hanging tuna fish. Pale and pasty, she slouches with all the appeal of, well, a dead fish.
Adams has always treated the practice of art as ongoing research and development for culture, a process of perpetual experimentation through which you can figure out what sticks, what makes sense. Artists—like the archeologists in an early Adams series—mine the past and the present to describe history and decipher meaning. In this respect, Adams has not been fixated wholly on either present or past. These are interchangeable entities to him, and meaning within the history of culture is not consistent, either: it changes all the time.
This unending malleability of cultural significance is no more apparent than in three icons of which Adams makes great visual hay in his work. Artifacts that bookend and punctuate the experience of mankind—a pre-Columbian vase, a classical Greek sculpture, and a silicon computer chip—they are the never-ending buddy movie in Adams’s practice. They are his three stooges, reappearing again and again to crack wise about culture. They make multiple appearances as background props, set design, artifacts that are worked on and considered. Sometimes they appear for purely formal reasons as a visual motif within a larger work. Other times, as in the Research and Development series, they are rendered in multiple paintings styles to push their potential meaning in as many directions as possible. The vase begins to look ambiguous and futuristic. The Greek sculpture is just another foxy pinup. The computer chip is op art decorative.
“To archeologists a thousand years from now, Tupperware will be just as compelling as a painting.”
The genesis of Adams’s three stooges reveals both the notions that provoke Adams and the magical skepticism with which he approaches the idea of cultural significance. The images furthest apart on a cultural timeline—the vase and the computer chip—were both culled from issues of National Geographic. The first appealed to Adams as pure archetype, so much so that he has remained willfully ignorant about its origin. The second struck a chord by the fact that computer designers could recognize each other’s work when viewed under a microscope—that they were essentially adopting the language of abstract art on an infinitesimal scale.
The Greek statue Adams adopted for his practice is The Dying Niobid (c. 450–440 BCE). The mortal Niobe died because she boasted of her superiority to the goddess Leto, whose twin children, Apollo and Artemis, killed Niobe’s fourteen offspring, after which Niobe fled to the mountains, where she turned to stone as she wept. To the ancient Greeks, Niobe was one among many morality tales and warnings against hubris and pissing off the gods. To Adams, the back story of The Dying Niobid was admittedly tragic, but the statue itself was less death and more sensuality. Or sensuality in death. Or just a stone cold pinup, unerringly similar to that first infamous nude shot of Marilyn Monroe from 1955. Marilyn had a tragic back story, too. As would perhaps any number of other contemporary Niobes one might find preening and jutting and languishing somewhere (or is it everywhere) on the Web. A cultural object is a cultural object is a cultural object.
“I deconstruct on the fly. I can always construct a meaning afterward.”
In his recent Titles First series, Adams’s painted images respond to a collection of found text notes and his absurdist muse blossoms. Meaning is up for grabs. You read the titles and think a rabbit is being pulled from a hat, meanwhile the images collide, the girl gets sawed in half, and you’re not sure what exactly transpired.
In The World Is What We Think It Is in Our Most Ordinary Moments (2001–2006, p. 53), an old man and young boy inspect dead gophers, as though striking up some sort of bargain, while a plane zooms by in the background, a farcical and disturbing combination. I’ve seen the painting three or four times and have spent tenfold that much time wondering what my own most ordinary moments are and how that possibly relates the world at large, power, questionable relationships, scurrilous deals, dead gophers.
Even more terrifically ridiculous is No Reality Beyond Representation (2001–2006, cover, pg. 4). Where most of the works in the series are allusive in relation to the found text, Adams opts for a literal rendition here, as a man in a hooded parka tosses a dog with parachute out of a fighter jet. Rather than sky, clouds, and horizon, the tensed, bushy blur of the canine is flung into a mushy, messy field of abstraction.
It’s a literal, hilarious, and uncannily apt painting. The title of the work is not a contradiction of Adams’s illusionist practice; it’s a signifier of playful mockery. The hooded figure is Adams, chucking representation around as he pleases, tossing it emphatically into a space of pure illusion. Not without a parachute, but nonetheless, he’s letting it fly.