By Elizabeth Licata
Over a nearly thirty-year career as an artist and teacher in Western New York, Bruce Adams has consistently asked one question: how do we use and interpret imagery? (And of course, following on the heels of that question are its brethren: “what is art and what is pop culture?” “what is historical imagery and what is fictional imagery?” and, finally, “how do these types of imagery interact?”)
In the service of this intriguing and compelling quest, Adams has used, for the most part, recognizable, images—but they aren’t simple interpretations of the world that surrounds him. Adams is the first to admit that he came of age as an artist during the eighties, a time when many artists—such as David Salle and Eric Fischl—were taking pre-existing images from other sources and bending them to their purposes. With such titles as Paintings of Pictures of People with Paintings, Adams prompts the viewer to recognize that no image is as simple as it may initially appear.
In a twenty-six-year retrospective on view February 9-March 25 at the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery, Adams’s fascinating journey through the world of pictures can be experienced as a totality for the first time. Here’s a quick tour of the show, making express stops only.
First stop: Research and Development
Adams’s masterly amalgamations of archeological tableaux from the pages ofNational Geographic, masterpieces from art history, and pin-ups from gas station calendars are included in this group, perhaps the longest-running of the painter’s explorations. In these paintings, you will often see “scientists” in white coats, puzzling over such decadent examples from the canon of art history as the Venus of Urbino, while a pin-up flutters on the wall behind them. Many of the works feature similar deliberate clashes of types of imagery usually never seen together. It is very important to note that Adams explores the various styles and conventions of painting through the ages as vigorously as he dissects the history of imagery. A series of works on paper entitled Research and Development, Vase presents a traditional Mayan wedding vessel in about sixteen painting styles, including graffiti, color field, neo-expressionist, and others. Thanks perhaps to the resilience of the form, each playful version comes off as a strong, vibrant painting in its own right.
Next stop: Men at Work
Adams’s works on paper best express the liveliness of his brush, including the fluid, expressionist Men at Work series, in which anonymous men, usually engaged in vaguely scientific endeavors, are presented against a backdrop of nude pinups or other contrasting imagery. Three iconic images—the Mayan vessel, a abstracted computer chip, and a classical nude sculpture—reoccur throughout these, evoking the timeline of Western culture as well as giving Adams more opportunities to have fun with paint.
Last stop: Paintings of Pictures of People with Paintings
These elegant, meticulously realized paintings are done from snapshots of viewers in various museums and galleries—complete with the works of art they are viewing. They have plenty to say about the act of viewing art as sightseeing (in which the experience of seeing a painting is more a notch in the tourist’s belt than revelatory or educational). They are also spare, strangely minimalist works, somehow dominated by the white space in which the viewers and artworks often float. The sterile atmosphere of the gallery is captured perfectly, and the artworks become mere props for the viewers. As always, Adams makes careful choices with his painting techniques, alternately using a flat, airbrushed look with more expressive brushstrokes sometimes appearing, usually on the white background. Often, the people in the images are themselves taking pictures of the paintings (which seems completely bizarre until you find yourself in an art museum doing it).
There is so much more in this comprehensive exhibition, including a beautiful series of paintings of tattooed women as well as a more recent series called Title First, in which Adams plays imagery off against completely disassociated text. Even as I write, this ceaselessly inventive and prolific artist is probably hard at work in his studio, struggling with a concept for yet another series of paintings. (That is, if he isn’t otherwise occupied as a fulltime, award-winning art teacher; president of the Hallwalls board of directors; or, last but hardly least, a regular contributor to this publication.)
If the descriptions of some of these works—there will be over seventy in the show—may sound a bit academic, the images accompanying this article vividly demonstrate that they are also beautiful, stimulating, engaging, and—often—humorous. Adams’s art is like his intellect—constantly probing, questioning, and analyzing, but always enjoyable. He’s a fun guy. And this will be a fun show. Check it out.