Wayne Adams

Wayne Adams is a Brooklyn based painter and photographer who received his B.F.A. from Calvin College and M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis in 2000. Adams has exhibited throughout the Midwest, New York and Vienna, Austria. Recent shows include, "A Strange Place," Alogon Gallery, Chicago (2008); "Really?" New York Center for Art and Media Studies, NYC (2007); "The Submissions Show" Sarah Bowen Gallery, Brooklyn, NY (2007); and "Select III" WPAC, Corcoran, Washington, DC (2004). Adams is the co-founder of umami clothing company and will be teaching a class this fall at Parsons The New School for Design on design and social responsibility.

New Year, New York, New Art . . .

It’s interesting to note how, during the holiday season, when retailers are bending backwards to catch every potential shopper with any technique possible, the gallery district in Chelsea had only a smattering of open galleries on the weekend after New Years’. While they did swing back in full force over the next two weeks, if you didn’t know better, you probably wouldn’t think much had changed.Perhaps it hasn’t.Maybe art galleries are just a different kind of retailer.

So, here is a completely biased list of notable New York shows, open or recently open, that I’ve seen:

Trenton Doyle Hancock at James Cohan Gallery. This was a solid showing from Hancock;those familiar with his signature style of comic characters will happily note that the saga of vegans and the cult of color moves on – though, in an interview, Hancock indicated a future end to the story and a potential radical shift in work.This exhibit reflects similar styles with new twists.A wall series of five-foot-square paintings are a deliberate nod to Phillip Guston, and depict one of Hancock’s domed-headed characters in various configurations.I often wonder if Hancock’s work is more about the complex story than the aesthetic of individual pieces. You can certainly spend a lot of time in either place. Here, at least, it seems like he’s found a solid balance of the two.

Tim Rollins at Lehman Maupin Gallery. I have been a fan of Rollins and K.O.S. for a while, so I was excited to see this show – apparently their first solo show in several years. If you are familiar with their work, this show will seem familiar, yet I think it holds up just the same.Extracting pages from books read collectively and gluing them down as the ground for each painting, Rollins and K.O.S. have continued the style they are known for, while pushing it in new directions.Here, they have constructed a show that appears both beautiful and dark – the term “goth” comes to mind. The collaborative team’s aesthetic has consistently been minimal, and the thick black lines and shapes on these paintings, with their relatively white backgrounds, are as stark as ever. The books Rollins and K.O.S have chosen for this show revolve largely around themes of race, with texts by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. These are not ironic images – they are earnest and beautiful responses to the texts. A friend of mine recently postulated that “sincerity is the new irony.” If this is true, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. are right out in front.

Robert Gober and Felix Gonzalez-Torres at Andrea Rosen Gallery. With the esoteric title “A Shadow Leaving an Object,” the show consists of two small pieces installed on opposite sides of the main gallery space.The Gober contribution, Prison Window, is a barred window cut into the wall at about ten feet from the floor, allowing the viewer to only see what appears to be blue sky on the other side. We are in jail. On the opposite wall was Felix Gonzalez-Torrez’ Untitled, a pair of two circular mirrors, about 6 inches in diameter, set flush to the wall. This meant that the gallery was technically empty; as described, the two pieces are both installed flush to the wall, with no parts projecting into the gallery. Both of these pieces draw the viewer out of the gallery, while being acutely conscious of their own position inside. As the accompanying statement argues, “. . . the exhibition becomes a setting for a play about the nature of freedom and imprisonment . . .”

Jeremy Earhart at Goff + Rosenthal.. Earhart’s first solo show in Manhattan offered a stunning array of free-standing and wall-mounted works constructed in plexiglass and string. Best seen after dark with black lights shining, Earhart’s pieces are complex, psychedelic and reveal a thorough investigation in color and material. Balancing the intense beauty are layered political, religious and cultural references, giving the viewer as much to consider intellectually as visually.Of the work I’ve seen on display recently, Earhart’s show stands out as unique and timely. Every now and then you get a breath of fresh air among the familiar styles and themes in the art world, and here is one.

Elizabeth Payton at New Museum. Personally, I’ve been on the fence regarding Elizabeth Payton’s work.I enjoy her paint application, use of color, and brush work;on the other hand, her subject matter – the famous lovers and friends she has and has had – trivialize the work to a Paris Hilton level.At their best, her paintings can be ethereal, beautiful and elegant – an image of the west village of New York is a great example.At their worst, they fall like Britney Spears with hair clippers – her separate paintings of Gavin Brown and Michelle Obama fall in this category.Overall, this show didn’t change my mind one bit.It gave a sense of what Payton has been up to for the last several years, but I don’t think it ended up being the most flattering representation of her. Perhaps that makes for a more honest interpretation.

Mary Heilman at New Museum. I didn’t like this show at first, but a good friend whose opinion on art (and painting, specifically) told me that he really loved it, so I have to rethink my first impression. I’m gong to have to go back to see the show.Referencing numerous modern painters from Al Held to Joseph Albers, Heilman employs a loose (for lack of a better term) technique of paint application for her own non-representational compositions (I don’t call them abstract, because they don’t appear to be derived from any recognizable images).Heilman’s work seems conceptually strong – it seems like she’s very intentional about her decisions – but I have a hard time calling a lot of it beautiful, which is why I need to go back and see it again. Admittedly, I rushed through the exhibition first time, so it’s not hard to imagine that I may have missed potential nuance in her work.

On a Year of Vegetarianism

On October 29, 2008, I ate meat for the first time.

Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. I actually ate meat for the first time in 365 days, marking the end of both my “Jesus year” and my extended excursion into vegetarianism. To explain what may seem rather random or absurd, I should probably give you a bit of context.

Turning thirty-three was significant time marker for me.It represented, in a strange way, more than just another birthday or year gone by. Thirty-three is largely considered the age Jesus Christ was when His life and ministry were abruptly ended in His crucifixion.As a practicing Christian (emphasis on practicing), I have always felt a sort of build-up to this age. It’s not that anyone tried to actually compare me to Jesus or asked me if I planned on outdoing, one-upping, or upstaging Him in some way; it’s just that in the back of my mind it seemed like there was a sort of historical/biblical precedent for being at the height of one’s career, or at least doing something incredibly important at that age.

Some people reach prominence much earlier to be sure – Mozart was a child when he wrote his first symphony, and John McEnroe was only twenty when he won his first Grand Slam singles title in tennis. Certainly, I wasn’t feeling like I had to out-accomplish either of them (although they represent more reasonable goals than single-handedly saving the world). But I did find myself evaluating what I had actually accomplished in my life so far, noting how that compared with where I wanted to be, and thinking of some way to distract myself from the depression that resulted. Thus was born the idea of doing a year-long project to commemorate my “Jesus year” in some significant way.

This wasn’t an entirely novel epiphany, as three years earlier I had successfully completed another, and more apparently absurd, year-long project.That time, from my twenty-ninth to my thirtieth birthday, I wore the same outfit every day. Before being too horrified at the unsanitary connotations of this prospect, let me reassure you that I did purchase multiple copies of said outfit. I wore an identical version of the same uniform every day that year, though I did allow myself a lighter, short-sleeved version at the six-month mark. It just gets too hot in New York City for a long-sleeved T-shirt and pinstriped wool pants in August.

The motivation for that project was essentially the same as my vegetarian Jesus year. By taking on a project that had daily ramifications, I found a way of being distracted from the nagging thoughts and conversations I wanted to avoid.When I found myself in conversations about what I was going to do before I turned thirty, it was really easy to divert conversation completely by explaining how my major accomplishment was dressing the same every day (it’s a great topic for conversation, by the way).

This year was no different, but I also found myself wanting to do something appropriate to the Jesus-ness of the occasion – something that would help me think differently or act more like Jesus in some way. Vegetarianism seemed like a likely candidate. I can’t say for certain that Jesus would be a vegetarian if He were walking around Manhattan, but I do think He’d definitely be aware of what He ate and I wouldn’t be surprised, knowing the way food is produced in the U.S., if He avoided meat altogether. I am sure He would tread lightly upon the earth, if you want to use the carbon footprint metaphor.I’ve actually argued that veganism is probably the ultimate ethical way to live in the twenty-first century, when it comes to food and respect for creation, but I don’t think I can go as far as pinning it on the Savior. He did cook fish for the disciples, after all.Of course this also brings up my favorite religious joke:
Question: How does Jesus make breakfast?
Answer: “Breakfast.”

Giving up meat was going to affect me every day. Every meal would be a reminder of what I was giving up, and why. I have been a life-long “meat enthusiast,” but my wife has been a vegetarian for almost sixteen years.I never really understood why she never wanted to go to steak houses or barbecue joints (still my favorite places to eat). By giving up meat, I decided I could identify better with my wife, potentially strengthen my marriage, gain a completely new perspective and have a daily reminder – all at the same time.

To say it was an easy year would be lying, but it was, in some ways, easier than I thought. It may also have something to do with the fact that the last meat I ate before starting the endeavor was the most disgusting hamburger you could buy – it came from at a truck stop Burger King off the New Jersey Turnpike. After that, I had little desire to eat meat for several weeks. But also, I live in New York City, where you can get just about any thing you want at just about any time of day or night. This is convenient – there’s a large variety of places and food types within a short distance. You could eat a new cuisine every day and not even realize there’s no meat. Throw a rock and you can find a vegetarian Thai restaurant that uses startlingly accurate meat substitutes in almost all of its dishes.

But there were times when it was incredibly difficult, too, like on vacation. We spent a week in Cape Cod this summer, and it turns out that Cape Cod cuisine consists mostly of parsley and potato salad when seafood isn’t front and center. Likewise, in the midwest, where my family lives, they haven’t exactly caught up with the coasts for giving a veg-head many options. Did you ever notice that almost every single dish on an Applebee’s menu has meat in it? Seriously . . . even the salads include bacon or chicken or deep-fried beef.

But now that the year is over, I’m glad I did it.My empathy for my wife, regarding food, grew more than I thought it would.It was like we were on the same special culinary team this year. I learned to appreciate her in a new way, she saw me identify with her in new ways, and I’m sure we saved money – meat dishes are almost always more expensive in restaurants.Not only that, but somehow I managed to actually value meat more.The questions of knowing where your meat comes from, if it’s organic or ethically raised, somehow became a priority. If this was a project for my Jesus year, and Jesus was at the core, it seemed to make killing and eating His creation a bit more significant. I don’t know if all of this made me any more like Jesus, but I do think it has helped make me a little more conscientious in general, which I think Jesus would appreciate.

On my thirty-fourth birthday, when my wife and I went out for an intimate dinner in Brooklyn to break my year-long fast, she warned me not to get a steak and make myself sick. But I decided on something different anyway, because I wanted to end this self-assigned task appropriately.To end my Jesus year, I had the lamb chops.

And it was good.

New York, New Art

The first week of September typically marks the beginning of the new season for the contemporary art world. In New York City, for instance, most galleries significantly reduce their hours of operation during July and August, and some close entirely. September marks their vigorous re-opening, often displaying the boldest, brightest and highest selling artists in a gallery’s roster.

September openings are a frenzy of crowds hopping from show to show, hoping to see something new and interesting – or at least something worth talking about. With so many openings happening at the same time, there’s a fair chance you’ll see something within your interests, but an equally fair chance you’ll see a lot that’s . . . not.

This is a rundown of my admittedly biased opinions of the more notable shows I was able to see on the first (presumably biggest) opening night of the 2008-09 art season – Thursday, September 4th.

Johnston Foster at Rare Gallery – Despite being pinned as resembling one of the sculpted angry mobsters (not necessarily a complement), this show left me wanting more. Johnston’s aesthetic of recycling odd materials into recognizable forms is familiar and no longer novel enough to stand on its own as spectacle, so I found myself hoping the installation would be balanced conceptually – give me something to chew on, so to speak. It may have been there, but I didn’t find it and the work itself didn’t compel me to dig deeper.

On the upside, next door was a surprising and engaging photography show at Danziger Projects by artist Paul Fusco. These beautiful images played in the space between art and journalism and were obviously poignant, given the state of our presidential race. Here were images from the train carrying Robert Kennedy to Arlington National Cemetery from New York, showing crowds of devoted mourners and spectators lined up to see him pass.

Phoebe Washburn at Zach Feuer Gallery was our next stop. Although the show was hugely crowded, I found the spectacle outweighing the payoff for me again. Washburn, noted for her massive installations of repeated objects of detritus, seemed to be turning a new corner with her make-shift store and installations resembling ecosystems. I thought this had a lot of promise, but in the end, the work seemed to be problematic for me in two different ways. The store, which sold made-on-demand products (pencils, shirts, beverages and other “ort”) maybe worked too well in pointing to the futility of a product/consumer system – I didn’t want any of the “ort” sold, but I wasn’t drawn in with its aesthetics enough to balance what I read as the message. It reminded me of Jason Rhoades’ Pearoefoam, for some reason; but in that case I was sucked in by the balance of concept, absurdity, and beauty.

On the flip-side, Washburn’s installations resembling ecosystems or filtration systems looked fantastic, but weren’t actually functional; rather, they carried the idea of functional systems. Though that is certainly a legitimate pursuit, they would be so much better if they actually functioned as filtration or ecosystems, because it’s common knowledge that such systems can be easily produced. At present, the sculptures seemed to point toward a necessity for such creative and functional systems. At this point, I think I’d rather see the thing itself and marvel at its beauty and mystery than a sign pointing to it. I wanted it to go one step further.

Our second-to-last stop was at Max Protech for Mike Cloud’s new paintings. I’ve been a fan of Mike’s paintings for a few years now, and they stood out from the myriad of shows opening in Chelsea by pushing the conversation about the nature and significance of painting (and art) in new directions. I found many of them visually compelling and some of them visually revolting. All of them seemed to me to contribute to an interesting conversation surrounding aesthetics, art, the art market, and painting. It was refreshing to see vulnerability and questioning as the opening to a new art season rather than repeated proclamations (aren’t these paintings great!?!). Cloud’s clunky, hand-sewn and roughly painted “Quilt paintings” make the viewer stop short and re-assess pre-conceived notions. They are a new exploration of a visual language system Cloud has constructed – one I would be happy to speak as fluently.

On a final note, Andreas Serrano’s photographs at Yvon Lambert were, literally, crap.

On Being In Strange Places

Last April, I was in a strange place. To be specific, I participated in a group show at Alogon Gallery in Chicago curated by Dayton Castleman, titled “The Strange Place.” Alogon Gallery asked Castleman to curate an exhibition after witnessing a discussion between him and James Elkins on the topic of Christianity and art. At the time, Castleman was finishing his M.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and taking a class from Elkins, who was his advisor. One of the gallery owners of Alogon happened to be in the same class and witnessed the discussion, noting its value and wishing to carry it forward. James Elkins has recently become the go-to guy for discussions about religion within the art world because of his reputation as a prominent art historian and his 2004 book, On The Strange Place of Religion In Contemporary Art.

The exhibit’s title was an obviously direct reference to Elkins’ book. In the text, Elkins describes what he considers the problem of integrating religious belief with the process of making art within the contemporary art world. His examples come from his personal experience with students in the Art Institute. In each case he demonstrates how the student’s approach to religion within their work is unsuccessful. Within his own data set, his argument is rather easily proven. Most of the pieces he examines do fail in specific ways. But there has been considerable bristling from within the Christian community at his taking a representative sample from such a narrow group and judging the entire population by it, thereby ignoring recognized contemporary artists who address religion in their work.

Elkins also sheds light on is the seeming lack of understanding of or ability within the contemporary art world to dialogue about religion as an aspect of an artwork in gallery and museum settings. Another art historian, Dr. James Romaine, corroborates as a case in point that he (a relatively unknown art historian at the time) was asked to contribute an essay regarding the religious aspects of a Robert Gober installation for a major show of the artist at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York City in 2005. The show prominently featured a sculpture of a headless Christ on the cross, among other pieces. To Romaine, the irony was that no one had written specifically on the religious significance of such imagery in Gober’s work (this was not the first, nor most overt example); Gober is an artist about whom many articles, press releases, books and catalogs have been published, yet when a highly publicized exhibit of his work appeared, acknowledgment of its religious aspects were not found among mainstream critics or historians. Both Elkins and Romaine note a nearly complete avoidance of conversation regarding religion within the galleries, museums, and institutions of the contemporary art world.

For his part, Castleman decided to address the conversation regarding Christianity, religious belief, and the practice of making art by simply organizing the show in a unique way. He invited eight artists with whom he became acquainted through the Christian community rather than the art world to display recent works; he knew the artists first as Christians, and later as artists. The pieces submitted by the artists didn’t have a conceptual or aesthetic tie to them, or even a similar subject matter – although in two cases work was selected from an artist’s ouvre that directly related to religion. Albert Pedula’s “tanographs” look startlingly like the Shroud of Turin, as well as my own “Jesus Portraits” of people dressed in a “biblical wig and beard.” In both instances, the work was representative of the artist’s general practice.

The largest contribution to the show was a series of drawings by Philadelphia-based artist Rob Matthiews from his Knoxville Girl series. The drawings trace an enigmatic and murderous excursion of a group of college-aged partyers, a tale based partly on a true story from the Tennessee town and partly on an old folk ballad. There is certainly an air of moral implication to the work, but no specific religious reference. Other artists displayed a wide range of work – from Rubens Ghenov’s drawings to paintings by Keith Crowley, Mark Dixon, Tim Gierschick, and Ben Volta to the free-standing sculptures of Gene Schmidt and Dayton Castleman himself.

I visited the opening of the show with Gene Schmidt, and it was interesting to observe that the premise was enough to allow such a disparate collection of work to be installed together without coming off as disjointed or haphazard. Indeed, while the knowledge of the religious standing of each of the artists was a significant awareness, the arrangement of the show was such that each artist had sufficient space to have his work be considered individually while not being disconnected from the whole. As his statement in the press release says, Castleman was admittedly not trying to set up a “…final word or solution to the issue (of religion and art)…” but “…as an occurrence that could serve as a discrete point of reference within an ongoing conversation.”

The result was exactly as Castleman had hoped. The opening appeared to generate a largely positive and lively response as well as a number of conversations about artists and how religion related to their work. The importance of this show successfully happening in a public and contemporary gallery space was certainly not missed; it was a refreshing spark of hope that religion, and specifically Christianity, could be discussed, critiqued, and even celebrated without a harshly reactionary/secular or blindly proselytizing/evangelical bias. A middle ground seemed to be established and participants from any side warmly stood thereon.

This is why I think “The Strange Place” is such an appropriate title. It took courage on Castleman’s part to organize a show that exposed both himself and a number of his friends to the scrutiny and criticism of a traditionally secular industry that tends to react against rather than promote religious work. It also took courage on the part of Alogon Gallery to be willing to host a potentially controversial and unpopular show. For me, the dialogue that surrounded the show was more significant than the fact that I had work hanging in it (although I feel tremendously honored and grateful to participate). If a civil, lively and productive dialogue can result within the context of the contemporary art world, it can (and should) happen anywhere. Indeed, it encouraged me to look for ways to find myself in a strange place again and again.

Some Work from “The Strange Place”

Timothy Gierschick

Rob Matthews

Albert Pedula
Albert Pedula

Gene Schmidt

Wayne Adams