Sunday, March 16, 2014

Reflecting on Art before Game Night

Tomorrow, I get to spend time with the spouse of a friend, an artist who does collage. I'm going to try to get down some thoughts;  many of them will be highly derivative, as I am still learning to write and think about the visual arts.  This reflection is in two parts:  one on medium (especially the construction of depth in a collage) and one on theme.

Let me start with the medium.  Robert Adams does collage, and you can see at moments how he both plays with and against what we might expect in the medium.  Comparing "Horse with a Colorful Mask" to "Oregon Civil War," there is first the simple tension between the purity of the colors within "Civil War" and the lack of such purity in "Horse" -- in one piece, coloration (and whatever complexity of coloration is achieved in the piece) is achieved by the complex overlapping of pieces of paper, while in the other, within a single piece of paper, there is variation of color (was the original paper colored this way, or did Adams color it, I do not know).  "Dandy Horse" appears to be closer to "Horse" in its construction -- more variations within the sheets of paper that form the collage.

If some artists (Matisse?) turn to collage as a way of working through the limitations of painting, Adams seems to approach collage differently, as a tool that can do the work of paint, but that allows him to play differently than paint and canvas might.

Why am I fixating on this?  Because one of the most interesting aspects of Adams' collages are the way he plays with depth.  And if "Civil War" were representative of his style, I would see the way he plays with depth as indicative of the limitations he sets for himself within the medium.  Instead, in comparing the three, I see someone who can play within and against those limitations to interesting effect.  So, in "Oregon Civil War," there is depth, insofar as optical effects push some colors closer to the front of our vision than others.  But there is no field, no genuine sense of forward and back, within the frame.  The same could largely be said of the "In Formation" series, though the presence of the wood-as-canvas seems to complicate the experience of depth. "Horse" offers us something closer to genuine spatial representation.

"Dandy Horse" shows us what I think is characteristic of what Adams is really trying to do with depth, across the works I have seen (at  That is, in "Dandy Horse," there is depth created.  But it is a depth of planes.  One plane recedes behind the other, in a way like the three-dimensional "Viewmaster" slides of my youth.  The distance from the "horse" in the foreground to the trees, from the trees to the buildings, from the buildings to the mountains, from the mountains to the clouds, is incalculable, or at least, it's not a matter of interest to the artist to represent.

So what is Adams representing here, for us, in his collage work?  I look at these works, at least these three, and I feel someone who is trying to represent the ways that the world rushes forward towards us.  "Civil War" and "Dandy Horse" especially are works that, in the end, press the world forward towards the surface of the canvas.

I look at these collages and what I experience is what I experience when I fall asleep on a park bench on a sunny day (I did that a lot when I was younger).  You wake up, you open your eyes, and the sun is bright and shining and the world just rushes into your irises and you can't stop it.  Adams creates that experience in an 8x8 square.

"Horse with Colorful Mask"

"Oregon Civil War 2010, Third Quarter"

"Dandy Horse with Italian Leather Saddle"
"Anti-Aircraft Gun"

"Exploit the Opening"

I wanted to talk about theme, a little bit, but I do so with a caveat, again:  art escapes me sometimes.  So I see two themes here, and they are blunt and obvious:  a fascination with the military (perhaps biographical, given the piece called "Dad" depicts a man in military uniform) and a pop sensibility that at times reminds me of Rosenquist.  In saying that it reminds me of Rosenquist, I am not calling it derivative;  rather, the strategies of fragmentation, magnification, and intense, vibrant coloration are deployed to different effect and purpose.

So for just a second, I want to think about the confluence of the pop and military thematic.  When I was growing up, which is about the same time I think Adams was growing up, the military occupied a rather complex place in pop culture imagination.  On the one hand, the threat of nuclear war loomed large and terrifying.  Any minute now, we could all be killed in what was called "mutually assured destruction."  But oddly enough, though this was a product of the "cold war" and the "military-industrial complex," it wasn't really a function of the military.

The "military," as in "men with guns," occupied a strange location.  On the one hand, the wounds of Vietnam were still fresh.  On the other hand, a series of tiny exercises (Grenada? Libya?) and a series of movies (First Blood, probably culminating in something like "True Lies" with Arnold S.) were helping to recreate an image of the military.

I look at works like "Dad," "Horse with Mask," "Anti-Aircraft Gun," and "Exploit the Opening," and I see someone trying to work through these kinds of historical processes:  someone who, on the one hand, wants to earnestly reflect what the military is, while at the same time, hammering at some of the pop culture absurdity that accumulated around the military, especially during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

I could be crazy here.  I guess I'll find out tonight.

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