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Life Arts

A Conversation with Derrick Adams

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Marcia G. Yerman       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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In September, "Derrick Adams: Live and in Color," opened at the Tilton Gallery in Manhattan. I sat down with Adams in Brooklyn, to talk about his work and career trajectory. We spoke at length, and went off on a few tangents--including the Koch Brothers, The Wiz, colonialism, and the leadership of Bayard Rustin.

At 44, Adams has plenty of exhibitions under his belt, both nationally and internationally. He received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, and has been in several shows at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Adams is included in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, which is currently at the Walker Art Center. He took part in Performa 05 and Performa 13. Currently a visiting artist at NYU, and a former member of the painting faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Adams brings insights from his years at Pratt Institute, The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the Masters of Fine Art Program at Columbia University.

When I met Adams on the evening of his opening, he was dressed in pants and shoes that connected him to his collages. At our interview, only his camouflage printed socks spoke to his strong interest in color, patterns, and fabric.

(Image by Jamaal M. Levine)   Permission   Details   DMCA
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Adams grew up in Baltimore, surrounded by a nurturing family that appreciated art. His hometown, known as "Monument City," gave rise to his interaction with architecture as foundation, and led to his ongoing use of "bricks" as a motif. Adams's upbringing among female relatives impacted his visual sensibility and frame of reference. He said, "When I think about flowers, I think about my aunt's house--not Monet." Being surrounded by a "collective consciousness of color and textiles," whether it was his grandmother making "curtains and shelf-liners" or an aunt's favorite scheme of mauve and grey hues, "set a tone."

These concepts of a "formal response to how it is to decorate," would translate into Adams's room sculptures, which examine structure and the use of space in terms of self-reflection.

Adams spoke incisively about an integral part of his rearing--what he identified as the requisite need to acquire a "double consciousness." He explained the lesson he absorbed as a young boy. It was the knowledge that "black folks had of themselves," and the alternate view. That was, "The world looks at you as a monster--the other." Adams gave the analogy of a young, black male child "skipping and then running," only to have that simple activity construed as flight from an illusory crime. The need for an ongoing "dual identity," as a means of survival for the adult black male, is a theme that repeatedly manifests itself in Adams's work. Explored is a representation of an outer appearance in conflict with the truth of an inner psychology. Adams sees the majority of his work "residing in the idea of how outside influences impact the perception of self."

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Spending summers in New York City, with relatives, prepared Adams for his Pratt Institute experience. However, the educational structure yielded insights beyond studio art. Adams was the sole black student in his program. Speaking about the white students, Adams noted that they were not getting a "whole picture of the spectrum of cultural dynamics that include or don't include." Yet, Adams maintained that he "didn't feel isolated." He said, "I wanted certain key elements of intellectualism. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to talk." When I asked him if he felt compelled to push back on the lack of diversity he responded, "As an artist you just want to make art." Adams connected to black artists through studio visits and other forms of interface.

The model of teaching that Adams encountered at Columbia motivated him to take a totally different approach in interactions with the students he would mentor. He is clear that it is "okay not to make what people understand." Adams said, "I want to get my mind blown. Most professors want to be validated." He added dryly, "Professors may look like you, but that doesn't mean that they are supporting your point of view."

While serving as curator for Rush Arts Gallery in Chelsea (1996-2009), Adams put the same philosophy into play, intentionally expanding his horizons to artists he didn't already know about; broadening the curatorial mission from "emerging artists of color" to "underrepresented artists."

Adams conversed about his process as an artist. He sees the act of creating as "visceral," and the aftermath as a period of "academic analyzation." Adams stated, "When you make a work, it shows people how you digest your ideas. Everything you've absorbed is realized in the work."

Clearly, Adams relishes the act of art making--whether it is in the realm of performance, video, sculpture, or works on paper. He contemplated, "Being an artist doesn't offer anything any more beyond peace of mind from doing the work. It's therapeutic. For me, what I like about being an artist is [that] it comes from--and is separate--from you. It must be actual and out of your head."

Adams is conscious of how his multifaceted artistic endeavors operate on the larger stage of the art world. Although Adams said he doesn't see himself as a political artist, he did acknowledge, "Everything I make is a socially engaging work. I'm always questioning everything." He emphasized, "I'm trying to pose questions for people to look at"by pulling back the curtain." This gets back to Adams underlying premise--in art and in life: "Everything that we are is based on a specific construction." Although Adams conveyed that he looks at art "as an intellectual journey," he is equally concerned with how his art is presented, both in terms of the medium and the execution.

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In his current show, Adams brings his exploration of race and "cultural context" to the table. Adams parsed his perspectives, in tandem with "the viewer bringing their stuff." That can include the possibilities of the audience not understanding what they see, responding to what they perceive as a narrative, or having a strictly emotional experience. Adams described the latter as a "translatable feeling of, 'I know that. I know what that's about. I know how to use that information.'"

The exhibit is comprised of sixteen pieces. Six are mixed media sculptures. The remaining ten are mixed media collages on paper.

All are viewed through the framing device of a television set from the 1980s, models with faux wood paneling and large black knobs bisected by silver rectangular handles. The invitation had a reproduction of the test pattern developed by the Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). That layout forms the background and palette for the collages.

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Marcia G. Yerman is a writer, activist, artist and curator based in New York City. Her articles--profiles, interviews, reporting and essays--focus on women's issues, the environment, human rights, the arts and culture. Her writing has been (more...)

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