Classic portraiture often features people with their signature objects. Think Van Gogh’s straw hat and pipe, Manet’s boys with fife and bubble pipe. British queens turned up with globes, roses, books, or musical instruments. The current show at Studio Hart presents god-heads, a display of 16 portraits from the Myths and Lies series by Buffalo painter, writer, and educator Bruce Adams. The paintings of contemporary gods and goddesses evolved from a playful series of photographs. Adams shot images of his friends—all members of Buffalo’s arts community—dressing up and posing with an array of objects suggestive of mythological characters.
Shown with the right props, we all shine a little brighter, full of godlike possibilities. Before we had movies, television, and internet to feed our growing sense of self, mythology gave people characters and narratives to explain the nature of the world. These tales continue to connect us to a timeless core of humanity. This form of psychic archeology allows us to perform as the gods and goddesses of our communities—heroes and heroines of our own lives.
Perhaps the objects we surround ourselves with begin to define us. I read somewhere that “there are no objects without meaning—there is no meaning without objects.” Our phenomenal world of objects is all we have. Curious symbolic items accompany the subjects of these paintings—birdcage, snake, rabbit ears, black lace glove, gold chain, and mirror. Seshat, the Eygptian goddess of wisdom, is pictured wearing dark-rimmed eyeglasses, a leopard pillbox hat, and matching gloves. I am reminded of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra with her headgear and heavy eyeliner. Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt, is shown holding a rack of antlers. Mercury, god of messages, abundance, and travel, is presented as a modern-era communicator bound by two telephones.
Other characters depicted in this collection are Medusa, Loki, Hygeia, Ploutos, Venus, Kaltes, Aglaea, Amenhotep, Akeso, Bellona, and Epona. You may wish to brush up on your mythology before your gallery visit—or not. This work is theatrical, a performance of figures as representative of mythology. Adams’s conceptually driven painting relies upon contextual associations through references to historical painting. The artist explains in his bio that he visualizes each body of work as a unified whole that is best appreciated when seen together. This selection is reminiscent of an artful collection of tarot cards, full of meaning and mystery. Remove one card from the deck and relationship to the rest and power is lost.
The influence of the camera also comes through. These paintings are headshots—suitable as social media profile pics—of the highest order. A well executed portrait reveals the inner essence of the subject. Oscar Wilde turned that notion around: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.” Both aspects of portraiture may apply here. The god-heads exhibition calls up the faces of 17th-century Diego Velazquez and 19th-century Gustave Courbet. There is also a strong connection to more recent trends in the work of postmodern figurative painters like John Currin or Jenny Saville.
There is plenty to experience in viewing god-heads. Intentionally titled with lower case letters and hyphenated, a reminder that these heads are playing at being gods. The strong representations lingered in my mind. Once past the initial fascination with the story of each character and the “who’s who” of local faces, Adams’s richly colored and crafted oil paintings have light and depth that holds the eye to look beyond concept and context.
The Adams show continues through July 26.