Black-and-white images of leafless trees in cold forests, masked figures in suburban neighborhoods standing next to ambivalent children, family portraits taken in the rubble of abandoned homes – these are the haunting scenes captured by photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. In Stages for Being, the University of Kentucky Art Museum has put together a series of photographs by Meatyard that best represent his unique vision. Meatyard’s work is comprised of images of children, families, abandoned homes, and stark landscapes through which he explores how the outer world works as a stage on which imagination and inner life act.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois in May of 1925 and raised in the neighboring town of Bloomington. After serving in the navy in World War II, he entered college where he briefly studied dentistry before deciding to become an optician. Shortly after marrying, he and his wife moved to Lexington in 1950. Here he worked as an optician, raised a family, and spent the rest of his life.
It’s in Lexington that Meatyard became involved with the Lexington Camera Club; a group of Kentucky creatives and intellectuals active from 1954-1974. Meatyard also maintained friendships with photographers such as Van Deren Coke and Minor White, and writers such as Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport. These figures would have a lasting impact on Meatyard’s work.
Stages for Being is a broad survey of the photography of Ralph Meatyard. Working with many pieces that have never been on exhibit before, the curator has organized the works not by chronology, but by subject matter. The exhibit fills the entire second floor of the Museum, a space normally reserved for the permanent collection. There’s a brief introduction to the life and works of Meatyard, and from there the photographs are divided into five categories: Masks, Interiors, Dolls, Nature, and Exteriors. This grouping doesn’t show the evolution of Meatyard’s work so much as it demonstrates how he used space and subject matter to explore various themes. It also demonstrates Meatyard’s consistency.
Within a twenty-year period, Meatyard developed his style. He didn’t do this simply through print size and camera model, but through his use of light, shadow, and composition. A Meatyard photograph can be distinguished by intense shadow offset by bright whites, as well as their theatrical and surreal nature.
A discussion of Meatyard would be incomplete without looking at one of his Masked pieces. In these images, Meatyard would pose members of his family in various settings (often abandoned homes, or country landscapes) and have the subject(s) wear a mask. These masks were often grotesque, gargoyle-like versions of an old man or woman’s face. The masks are unnerving. The wearer’s identity is concealed, and the photograph is no longer a simple portrait or group photo. By donning the mask, the wearer becomes the mask. On some level the viwer is aware that there’s an identity behind this mask, but through Meatyard’s lens, the mask is the person.
In Lucybelle Crater and Peanut Farmer Friend from Port Royal, Ky., Lucybelle Crater (1969-71), a man and woman sit outside of an open building with a large tray of peanuts placed before them. The woman Lucybelle Crater sits on a bench to the right of the man. Her arms are crossed and she’s wearing a skirt with a collared shirt and wool sweater. Her face is concealed behind the mask of a deformed old woman, a mask that can be found in many of Meatyard’s images. To her left sits the peanut farmer from Port Royal. He’s a whole head lower than Lucybelle, seemingly sitting on the floor. His face is hard to read, not because he’s wearing a mask, but because he’s wearing a ball cap and sitting in the shadow of the building. Lucybelle sits slightly forward of him, just enough that she’s clearly visible. The peanut table before the sitters is the brightest part in this scene, sitting directly in the sunlight.
Similar to other works in the exhibit, the table acts as a divider of the frame and distances the viewer from our two subjects. Meatyard often uses objects to divide and bisect his photos; a wall might separate two individuals, a tree branch might obstruct a landscape, windows act as barriers between viewer and subject.
This photo is part of a larger series: The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater. The photo is reminiscent of photographs in old family albums. Like pictures of people we’re related to but whose identity is lost. Using masks, Meatyard is commenting on issues of identity and image. On one level, the mask functions as a way to hide. Hidden one masks vulnerability. By masking one of the subjects, they take on a more relaxed, solid role in the scene. The masked person appears to truly be “a part” of the photograph. They ground the work. Their identity is firm and unchanging. An unmasked person must construct their identity without an aid. Unmasked, identity fluctuates. How does a photographer capture the mask as not just object, but idea?
Issues of identity are also explored in interior photographs in similar ways. The interior of a home often conjures up feelings of warmth, family, and place. It’s in the home that we first construct our identity. In the family home, the identity of mother, father, and child are perhaps the most solid roles we ever have. Using his own family as subject, Meatyard explores the concept of “family.” In Untitled (circa 1967) a young Mother and her two children (a boy and a girl) are shown standing in an abandoned house. The boy is around five and the girl around three. They’re all dressed in clothing typical of the sixties; the mother wearing a long skirt with a white blouse, the boy wearing a white button-up with dark pants, and the youngest wearing a little girl’s dress. Each figure stands in isolation, without acknowledgement of each other. The mother stands in the very back of the frame, with her eyes and face looking away from her children. If not for her light clothes, she would disappear into the shadows of the room. The little girl stands in the middle ground, with her hands tucked behind her and her body completely fontal.She’s the only person in the image to acknowledge the camera. In the foreground, standing in front a door that separates him from the others is the little boy. He’s not even in the same room as his family. The door that separates him divides the frame evenly in two, further distancing us from the mother and daughter. The boy’s face is blurred, as if he was shaking his head at the moment the photo was taken. Meatyard hasn’t photographed a family, but three individuals united by the implication that a woman in a picture with two young children must be a family. In this scene, they are divorced from their roles, and stand as three independent persons.
This image offers multiple avenues of analysis. The separation of the boy from his mother and sister examines gender dynamics, while the distancing of the mother from her two children raises questions surrounding motherhood and independence. But what unites these interpretations is identity. Meatyard, like many of his contemporaries, had an interest in Zen Buddhism. Its minimal aesthetic and mindful approach to life, coupled with its teachings on self and identity clearly informed his practice. Zen Buddhism asks us to quietly observe the world around us, and in the process, revelations about our own self will become apparent. In this observing, we begin to discover the deeper part of ourselves that is beneath the role of mother or father or spouse or child. This is what Meatyard is getting at through his photos; an exploration of personhood that runs deeper than familial or societal roles.
On one of the panels at the exhibit, Meatyard’s work is compared to Ansel Adams. I was struck by the comparison that while Adams photographed nature as a subject that elicits in the viewer an emotional response, Meatyard photographed nature as a stage onto which our emotions act. This is what Stages for Being explores. In his photographs, we consider the different stages on which our being acts. Meatyard’s photography reminds us of the masks we wear, the parts we play, and the identities we take on.
Stages for Being is on view at the University of Kentucky Art Museum until December 9, 2018. This exhibition should not be missed. Admission is free, and the exhibit is a rare chance for the audience to get a quiet, intimate experience with works that haven’t been shown until this viewing.
Aaron Reynolds is an Art History and Visual Studies major at the University of Kentucky. He’s fascinated by the function of art and design as tools for communication
Two recent exhibitions in Lexington, Kentucky operate as a collaborative undertaking that sheds light on an artist left to historical obscurity, yet one whose creative fervor and technical skill equate with his contemporaries. Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade at Institute 193 and Edward Melcarth: Points of View, on view at the University of Kentucky Art Museum through April 8, delve through the canon of American Modernism and uncover a lost gem: Edward Melcarth (1914-1973).
Melcarth left his hometown of Louisville in his youth for New York, where he would spend most of his adult life and made the majority of the paintings in the two exhibitions. And it shows—Melcarth’s canvases describe the nuanced intersections of maritime industry, physical labor, and leisure time experienced by the working class in many of America’s booming coastal hubs during the mid-1900s.
On view are an abundance of portraits and figurative scenes created during a historical moment when abstraction reigned as the premier American style. Yet a visitor who enters Institute 193 or the UK Art Museum is sure to detect traces of certain methods employed by abstract painters, especially in the expressiveness and vitality of Melcarth’s brushwork and handling of paint.
Installation View, Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade, Institute 193, Lexington, KY. Courtesy Institute 193.
Indeed, Melcarth depicts his subjects with an apparent responsibility for the preservation of their individual identities. At Institute 193, a display of thirteen solo portraits indicates the nature and implications of Melcarth’s identity as a homosexual man living during an era when overt, often physical demonstrations of masculinity domineered nearly every social realm (recall Hans Namuth’s photographs of Jackson Pollock in his studio forcefully flinging paint onto canvas in 1950).
As for Melcarth’s paintings, rarely are the men looking directly at the viewer. In “Man Leaning on a Windowsill”, a shorthaired, shirtless man folds his arms as he diverts his stare downward out of a white frame. He is muscular and young, and Melcarth captures the light that hits his skin in a rich spectrum of warm tones. The man is literally and figuratively undressed, removed from labor and the outside world; here he is himself, and Melcarth is seemingly cognizant of the man’s identity as well as the potential for his painting to serve as reflection of the artist’s own sexuality.
Edward Melcarth, “Man Leaning on Windowsill”, oil on canvas, 20 x 16”.
Not all of the men featured in Rough Trade, however, are as evasive or exposed as the subject in “Man Leaning on a Windowsill”. The majority are clothed with their heads raised, and Melcarth utilizes numerous formal elements to evoke the social pressure he—and presumably the men he paints—endured to conceal their homosexuality from the public eye, not least of which is the application of stark lighting.
Light in Melcarth’s portraits frequently discloses, whereas shadows are vehicles for concealment. In addition, Melcarth at times positions the bodies of his figures away from the viewer, as if to represent the pressure he and the men he painted felt to shutter their identity from the public realm. The man in “Blond Youth with Brown Jacket” turns his head over his back towards the viewer, careful not to make eye contact. He whistles, denying conversation, and his reversed position implies his intention to move beyond the scene. Although his stature is unmoving in the painting, he signals uneasiness or perhaps surprise, seemingly taken unaware by the viewer’s presence.
Edward Melcarth: Points of View, Installation view, University of Kentucky Art Museum
Edward Melcarth: Points of View, Installation view, University of Kentucky Art Museum
At the UK Museum, themes shift from intimate portraiture to Melcarth’s life and vast capabilities as an artist. In Points of View, Melcarth’s breadth of expertise is showcased in paintings, sculptures, and drawings of still lifes, physical labor, bar scenes, and more. The array of artworks exemplify why, according to the exhibition’s statement, collectors during and after Melcarth’s life, such as Peggy Guggenheim and Steve Forbes, were drawn to his divergence from the periodic norm of abstraction. Melcarth’s ability to work in large-scale is arguably the focal point of Points of View; his monumental paintings marry classical themes and mid-twentieth century ways of life.
In “Excavation”, two men tend to a sea vessel’s floor. One man holds a large rope in his hands that is seen snaking over the boat’s edge in the background, while another man in a white sleeveless shirt rushes to his shipmate’s aid. The painting, like many other artworks in the exhibition, focuses on men engaging in a physically demanding activity, the contours and motion of their bodies exaggerated to the point of fascination. What’s more, what “Excavation” shares with it’s neighboring objects is a unique, inward looking viewing angle. Melcarth’s expert translation of this seafaring task is compelling in both its simplicity and accuracy, but “Excavation” is most intriguing as an indication of the artist’s capability to mold a remarkable composition.
Edward Melcarth, “Excavation”, oil on canvas. Collection of Timothy Forbes, New York
Melcarth pursues visceral movement as subject matter throughout Points of View, as evinced in works like “Rape of the Sabines”. The title of the painting refers to a well-known Roman myth that carries motifs of abduction and calamity; artists throughout history, including Giambologna and Picasso, have employed the myth as inspiration for their art. The iteration on view at the UK Museum, which contains figures twisted amongst themselves rendered with anatomical accuracy, is a testament to Melcarth’s dedication to precision when illustrating the human form.
Edward Melcarth, “Rape of the Sabines”, oil on canvas. Collection of Steve Forbes, New York
Where Melcarth breaks from other artists’ versions, however, is the portrayal of men—not only women—as victims of violence committed by other men. Possibly a subtle invocation of suppressed sexuality Melcarth and some of his subjects endured during their lives, “Rape of the Sabines” stands as a definitive expansion of timeless material.
Edward Melcarth, “Last Supper”, c. 1960s, oil on canvas, Collection of Steve Forbes, New York.
But it is Melcarth’s “Last Supper” that draws considerable attention in the museum. Painted on a canvas that is elongated horizontally, Melcarth’s take on Jesus’s final meal before his crucifixion allows viewers to act as witnesses to a crowded bar of young, working-class men in bustling conversation, dodging other bar patrons, and attempting to hail the bartender. The countertop is scattered with bits of food and spilled mugs, and viewers are able to peer into the shelf below the bar’s surface accessible only to servers, which contains a range of food and dishes.
Historically, many artists make clear which disciple is Judas when describing the Last Supper, usually by turning him from the viewer or filling his hand with a sack of coins. In Melcarth’s scene, the man in the yellow shirt, with his left tricep flexed toward viewers, potentially fits this mold, but his role as bartender—the one serving others—arguably positions him as Jesus.
Melcarth, here, appears to imply that good and evil function not as a binary but as a spectrum in which the difference between the two is difficult to detect. An insight to his personal experiences, perhaps: Melcarth was an outspoken communist during his life whose sexual orientation and political views combined for reason enough for the FBI to keep a close eye on his activity, as noted by the exhibition statement at Institute 193.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s interpretation of the Last Supper is possibly the one that resonates most in public consciousness. In it, Jesus is situated at the center of the table, arms spread in an upside-down “V” formation. In the far right of Melcarth’s painting, a man in a red shirt mirrors Jesus’s position. Although he overlooks the scene, rather than frontally facing the viewer as Jesus does in Da Vinci’s work, his arms descend in the same arrangement. Were this hunched man in red Jesus, Melcarth’s scene would only simulate half of Da Vinci’s composition—viewers are only able to see the left half of the famed Renaissance fresco. Under this reading, Melcarth omits a crucial section of a dominant trope. His work is, inevitably, incomplete. Totality is withheld—a recurring theme as it pertains to the representation of identity in both Melcarth exhibitions.
The statement for Points of View calls the project a “homecoming of sorts, a chance to assess and appreciate” Melcarth’s work and career. Although the forces that have omitted Melcarth from the history of art are called into question with a critical eye, exhibitions at Institute 193 and the UK Museum function most pertinently as a joint celebration that posits Melcarth as an artist deserving of substantial recognition. As Rough Trade and Points of View indicate, Melcarth necessitated a conceptual break from popular forms of mid-century artmaking. These exhibitions are departure points for exploring why Melcarth diverted from abstraction, ultimately reexamining what we know about the trajectory of art.
Edward Melcarth: Points of View runs through April 8, 2018 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade showed at Institute 193 from January 13 – February 17, 2018. Both institutions are located in Lexington, KY.
As its name implies, Alison Saar’s Breach, currently on display at the UK Art Museum, offers insight into the collective memory of tragedy through ruptures in the narrative strands of history that are equally lyrical and horrifying.
While an artist-in-residence in New Orleans in 2010, Saar’s experience in the still-ravaged city, five years after hurricane Katrina, provided the initial impetus for a body of work that investigates the historical and cultural linkages between disaster and African-American experience. The works in Breach draw from an event nearly eighty years before Katrina, the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. Saar’s works attempt to explore the way this disaster, like Katrina, had an obscenely disproportionate effect on poor African Americans. Most African Americans were prevented from evacuating affected areas, forced to seek refuge on levees, and were forcibly conscripted in rebuilding efforts. The long-term effects of this disaster and its outcomes were not simply material, but had broad and enduring implications on the shared cultural experiences of African Americans.
Alison Saar, Breach, 2016, installation view.
Entering the main gallery, the walls are lined with portraits whose figures, their eyes pupil and iris-less, stare out at the audience in the throes of ecstasy and terror. Water rises around them, they gather up possessions above their heads as their bodies, some clothed and some nude, are variously submerged in the tide. Many of Saar’s works feature charcoaled images on found objects such as sugar sacks, denim scraps, drawers, and trunks, that dually function as physical objects and images and so take on iconic and even fetishized importance within Saar’s visual lexicon. Not unlike the practice of her mother, artist Betye Saar, Alison Saar’s assemblages blur the distinctions between memory and experience embodied in physical objects extracted from practical use and installed in the gallery.
Alison Saar, Breach, 2016.
In Breach (2016), the exhibition’s namesake and centerpiece, Saar hammered together tin ceiling tiles to form a life-size figure crowned with possessions saved from floodwaters. The figure, drawn from the mythological imagery of Greece and the African Diaspora, becomes an entirely new mythic sign, one though which Saar attempts to represent history as embodied experience.
Alison Sare, Hades D.W.P. II, 2016.
In fact, all of the works in the exhibition display direct traces of black bodily experience of disaster. Beyond the Great Flood and Hurricane Katrina, works like Hades D.W.P. II (2016) explore other systemic breakdowns that have disproportionally affected African American communities, namely the recent Flint, MI water crisis.
A shelf displays five large glass containers that hold vile looking liquids, eerily lit, whose fronts are etched with black body parts. The etched figures appear to drown in their glass enclosures, an effect that recalls both the violence of enslavement and the misery of black experience in light of persistence of racism and poverty. Saar’s works, that blend and blur the distinctions between both media and bodily experience, portray these recurring motifs of racist subjugation in a frank and visceral way. Muddled with mythological significance, words like “Hades,” “Lethe,” or “Mami Wata,” an African water spirit, tinge the works with a cosmological gravity that penetrates deep into the present. Death and suffering are present in the multitudinous signs Saar deftly weaves and layers together.
Alison Saar, Muddy Water Mambo, 2015.
The exhibition, split into two main spaces, establishes the content of Saar’s works beyond their physical presence, but extended into history and its practice. Saar draws on both the experience of the Great Flood and the effect it had on black culture, as it imbibed art and music in the 1930s and beyond with the traces of the Flood’s disastrous effect on black consciousness. Saar also reflects these traces back onto her works as well. Sluefoot Slide (2015) and Muddy Water Mambo (2015) both feature black figures, painted on bits of sacks, cloth, and denim, dancing and gesticulating in rising water, their ambivalent reactions to a disaster unfolding around them perhaps not uncommon to communities who have long suffered violence and oppression. Such ambivalence often manifested itself in the music of the Blues, traces of which can be found in Saar’s imagery.
In the second gallery, a film plays on a screen, where Saar narrates historical accounts of the Great Flood interspersed with explosive footage of her studio practice. Like the musicians and artists of the 1930s, Saar also contributes to the slippery space where art, history, and experience mingle. Printed works, which constitute a large portion of the exhibition, exemplify this practice. In fact, a majority of the works might be classed as prints, as they present the viewer with surfaces imprinted with the historical and bodily experiences of African American communities devastated by watery disaster.
Alison Saar, mami wata (or how to know a goddess when you see one), 2016.
Another kind of narrative chronicle hangs across from the screen where the film plays. mami wata (or how to know a goddess when you see one) (2016) takes the form of an artist’s book, the pages a single long sheer sheet that flows out goddess’s mouth. It is this speech, the markings of experience on history and culture, that Saar’s work so forcefully elucidates.
Saar’s success is not just in the works themselves, but in the way she investigates the language of black cultural experience that has been marked through a history of violence and destruction. Standing in front of the monumental Breach, one cannot help feel the weight of both the colossal load the figure bears and the significance of history embodied and marked on its surface, transformed into an icon, and speaking its experience.
Art, poetry, and music are basically cut from the same cloth—a fabric of the imagination inspired by the “real,” a concept as impalpable as any of the artistic processes that strive to represent it (reality). Goethe wrote that “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” While this expression may make our wheels of cognition wobble a little, it is comprehensible, it is imaginable, and it is poetic. If you listen to Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral, or if you look at any of Monet’s several paintings of Rouen Cathedral, the beauty, the emotion, and the lyricism that Goethe’s words and these great works of art share become magically palpable. So the formidable and rewarding task of any successful artist, regardless of the discipline, is to internalize his or her perception of the world and deliver it to us in a way that helps deepen our own experience and understanding of our place in it, of what it means to be human.
Lexington artist Patrick Adams has stood on the cliffs of his imagination and stepped up to this easel many times. He lives and breathes his art as he continuously endeavors to explore the parameters of possibility and to realize the full extent of his creative potential.
Etude No. 206 – 30″ x 22″ acrylic on paper, 2013
Adams grew up in the rural farming community of Worthington, Minnesota, a landscape that ignited his spirit and became the dominate subject matter of his work with its “tall-grass prairies, vast horizons, dramatic light and thousands of natural lakes.” Since moving to Lexington over two decades ago to obtain his MFA at the University of Kentucky, he has come to recognize and acknowledge an equal love for the Kentucky landscape as well.
In a recent article published in The American Scholar (March 20, 2017), Adams says of his work and process that, “When people ask me, ‘Are these real places?’ I say, well, yes and no. They begin there, but where they end is somewhere else . . . The memory is part of my process. I like what the memory does to the image. I want the details to slip away . . . I like how the memory distills or exaggerates things, or remembers in the landscape something really essential, just the dominant essence of the scene.”
Hilltop and Lavender Sky is an awe-inspiring example of what Adams is aiming for. And it hits the mark. Everything about this composition epitomizes the “essence of the scene” from the soft shapes and ethereal hues of lavender, yellow, and green to the sparse, deeper terrestrial tinges of white, red, and blue. Its subtle power and strong spirit make it an extremely important work of art because each time we look at it, it speaks to us in a different way, deepening our appreciation of it and strengthening our connection to it. It speaks of something beyond the physical world, of something eternal within nature and hence within ourselves. It enables the soul to take flight. For me, it brings to mind the countless times I climbed the hilltops near my childhood home looking at the layers of mountain ranges stretched out before me and standing in awe of the infinite space above me thinking this is probably as close to heaven as I will ever get.
Hilltop and Lavender Sky, 60″ x 40″ oil on two canvases, 2016
This piece was a part of Adams’ diptych series, In Two Worlds, exhibited at the Ann Tower Gallery, January – March (2016), a body of work that probably best represents his poetic and abstract concept of art as metaphor. Each diptych incorporates two canvases of equal size placed flush one above the other, doubling the surface space of the painting. But Adams explained in his artist statement for this show that the idea behind the diptychs goes far beyond the materiality of the canvases: “I have divided the landscape image along the horizon into two physically separate paintings: the lower half (earth), representing the physical realm, and the upper half (sky, the ‘heavens’) representing the metaphysical, or spiritual realm. These two parts, seen separately, appear flat and incomprehensible, but once brought together, they form an image that acquires an unexpected unity of light, depth and meaning . . . the physical and spiritual worlds are brought together as one, each illuminating and clarifying the other.”
Meadow Stream succinctly illustrates this point. The individual sections are completely abstract but as with all the paintings in this series, when combined, they are like the yin and yang of art—complementary elements coming together to create a harmonious whole.
Meadow Stream, 24″ x 36″ oil on two canvases, 2015
My first encounter with Adams’ artwork was at an earlier exhibit, Real Presence, at the Ann Tower Gallery in 2004. From that point on, I was sold although I couldn’t really afford to buy. A couple of years later, though, I lucked out and was able to purchase a small matted and framed oil on paper, Prelude 23, at a silent auction for the annual Art in Bloom event at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Then, as either serendipity or synchronicity would have it, about a month ago I managed to meet with him in his studio for an interview and to learn more about what lies behind his prolific and successful career as an artist and the philosophy and influences that govern his approach and style, a little of which we have already touched on.
Patrick Adams with Work in Progress | Photo by Jim Fields
Adams went to school at the height of post-modernism, but said it did not have a big impact on his painting because he felt it would not sustain him for very long. It appears he took the high road—and the open road—by absorbing specific concepts, subject matter, and technical nuances of some of the greats: “The kind of artists I’ve been responding to over the last 20 years have been somewhere between late romanticism and impressionism all the way up to contemporary artists. Corot (French) and Kensett (American) paid a lot of attention to light and atmosphere and even though they were romantics (mid-19th century), that’s where the seeds of impressionism and expressionism were sewn.” While both these artists still have a strong influence, Adams says, “Abstract expressionism (abex) pretty much describes my work. If you put those two ideas together, that’s really what my work is. If you took these two words [abstract and expressionism] and put them in a bag and shook it, my work would come out.” He admits a partiality to Van Gogh because his own markings, which he characterizes as jittery or fragmented surfaces are sometimes quite similar. This can easily be seen in his diptych, Pleasant Hill. Yet it is distinctly his own.
Pleasant Hill, 40″ x 40″ oil on two panels, 2015
Here Adams draws on the tremendous energy generated from the good earth and the big sky. The scene vibrates with motion and color and the elements are bold, and the gestures grand and striking. The luminosity and atmosphere that emanate from this painting can only be revealed by natural light, or the memory of it, regardless of where it was painted—in the studio or outdoors (plein air). The reality of this landscape has been deeply internalized, merged with the artist’s inner self, and he has allowed this integration to charge his imagination and guide his brush and his palette knife over the canvas time and again, layering the scene into existence. It is abstract expressionism simultaneously contained and gone wild. It is a landscape that refuses to stand still.
Besides giving a lot of credit to his former professors for helping him see and be, Adams did not ignore the influence of Monet’s later, more abstract and heavily textured works with which few of us are familiar, the ones we don’t see in art history books. He also paid homage to the late modernist Richard Diebenkorn (American colorist and structuralist) as well as the images of the contemporary Danish geologist, artist, poet and filmmaker, Per Kirkeby. One of Adams’ most abstract and most recent small pieces, Break, speaks volumes as an amalgamation of these influences and his own experience—a synthesis where the conscious and subconscious work in tandem to create a presence that is one thing when seen up close, but quite another when viewed from a distance. A genuine mark of artistic vitality.
Break, 10” x 10” oil on canvas, 2017
Adams explains, “I use a ton of paint and paint over a lot of other good paintings that I’m not satisfied with to create this effect.I lose a lot of good paintings to get to the one I eventually keep but I think this approach is pretty indigenous to the abex genre.”And he remarks that regardless of the canvas size, “the landscape for me is an arena to address other things such as light, space, movement, color, and even smells and feelings.”
The sentiment he expresses in his artist statement is congruent in all his work and he challenges anyone who looks at his paintings to see the poetry too:“I want people to see the natural world not as a backdrop to their lives, but as the very heart of their lives. The beauty of these forms is not just to delight us (though it does), but also to give us life. Beauty is not simply an ornament, a surface phenomenon, but the essence and power of being. And, if beauty is accompanied at all times, as many great thinkers both ancient and modern have asserted, by goodness and truth, then we ignore it to our peril.” Then let us not ignore the beauty, goodness, and truth of Ascent of Light.
Ascent of Light, 48” x 48” oil on canvas, 2013
Light is a crucial element in all of Adams’ work, as many ofhis other titles suggest: Light Under Pressure, Light and Fog, Shaker Light, Veil of Light, Where Light Dwells, First Light, Uplight, and most important—Goethe’s Light. His philosophy that inquisitiveness is vital to being a creative person led him to the German poet and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s treatise on Theory of Color published in 1810, in which he (Goethe) hypothesizes on color as an interaction between light and darkness, why we see color, how we experience it, and how it affects us psychologically and emotionally.
Maria Popova in Goethe on the Psychology of Color and Emotion, observes that “One of Goethe’s most radical points was a refutation of Newton’s ideas about the color spectrum, suggesting instead that darkness is an active ingredient rather than the mere passive absence of light.”
“Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of color,” noted Goethe. “Color itself is a degree of darkness.” Goethe’s Light may not contain the stirring brilliance you see in Ascent of Light, but it faithfully renders the more obscure “active ingredient” of color not uncommon in abex art.
Goethe’s Light 30″ x 30″ oil on canvas, 2016
When he was working on Goethe’s Light, Adams said he saw a different kind of light, a luminescence emerging from darkness:
For Adams, these forces also include music – he plays a number of instruments and composes as well.While Pythagoras’ theory on harmonics is more exact than Goethe’s on light and color, the effect that music has on us is just as powerful. So I asked Adams to elaborate a bit on the connection between his art and music, and he jumped right in.
He has been painting (and selling them) since he was ten years old, and his interest in music at this young age was also well beyond that of a neophyte. He was awarded both an art and music scholarship (trumpet performance) his first year in college at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota. But because of an injury he received while playing in college marching band, he had to quit playing for a while.He says that hiatus was actually fortuitous because it he made him focus more on his art, eventually allowing him to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Kentucky where he was awarded a full scholarship and a teaching assistantship. And he hasn’t looked back.
In considering his love for making music and its connection to his art and creative process, it’s easy to see how one inherently feeds the other, even though he has chosen painting and teaching as a profession.He emphatically states, “If I had another career, I would like to write film scores because there’s a direct link between the music and the image.”As for his painting, he muses, “The ideal show for me would be where I would write a soundtrack for it that would be atmospheric and simple and spacious, similar to a landscape where you are the thing in the space.” I say go for it!It may not be a new concept, but it is most definitely a rare experience for gallery goers to be engulfed visually and aurally by the work of a single artist.
As we listened to some of his compositions in his studio, Adams pointed out that both his paintings and his music “are the result of a very intuitive and improvisational process where an idea begins to assert itself and is then embellished and refined, yet neither is without structure. Just as paintings derive from the landscape, the songs are structured in a traditional jazz format . . . The intended result is simplicity.” Because he plays each of the instruments himself, he records his music in layers (or tracks) similar to the way he constructs a painting: “Same process. I am building different layers and colors and textures, and the way they interact lets you ultimately see a single image or hear a single piece of music.” Take a listen to the title cut from his album, Solipsis, while viewing his Etudes (201 – 206) and experience it for yourself.Before you start, though, keep in mind that the titles have a bearing on the processes involved as the work was created.
Solipsis relates to the inner mind, thought, voice, feeling, and wanderings, in this case, as expressed through Adams’ individual and yet integrated performance on the electric piano, organ, drums, acoustic bass, and trumpet. Etude, a term mostly applied to a short musical composition that helps a player become more proficient on a given instrument, also refers to small studies that artists create as they formulate ideas for a larger work. Adams, again, hits the mark on all counts and here is a rare opportunity for you to get inside his head and bask in the reverie.
Etude No. 201
Etude No. 201
Etude No. 202
Etude No. 202
Etude No. 203
Etude No. 203
Etude No. 204
Etude No. 204
Etude No. 205
Etude No. 205
Etude No. 206
Etude No. 206
View Patrick’s work and listen to his composition, “Solipsis.”
From having worked on this piece for the last several weeks, the association of music with Adams’s painting has become fully ingrained in my psyche. With Harbor, for instance, I can see the interconnected layering and I can hear the music—music that I am creating in my own head as I stare at the essence of what a harbor looks like under particular circumstances or with its reality broken down into its basic components that become abstract, unrecognizable to my cranial dictates in relation to what I think a harbor should be or how I think a piece of music should sound simply based on its title. This is the beauty of the challenge in all of Adams’ work. It requires that you be with it, allowing it to permeate your senses.
In his words:
Harbor 36″ x 84″ acrylic on canvas, 2016
Despite his musical accomplishments, painting comes to the fore as Adams’ first love and he is very forthright with what sustains his creative spirit: “I love to paint. I like the physicality of it combined with the images I create. I’ll never get it perfect and that’s what keeps me going. There’s also something about the struggle and not knowing where you are headed.When I start painting [or composing], it’s like bumbling around in the dark and the more I can stay in the dark and stay lost, the more I like it in the painting [and the music]. Within certain boundaries, it’s exciting and to be lost in a work is good. The poetry of the creative act is in the struggle. The struggle makes art and art redeems the struggle.” Sounds a little like life, doesn’t it?
And then, there is the matter of the medium:
Through the on-going cycles of redemptive struggle necessary to the creative process, Adams has built up an impressive CV and portfolio.He has been a professional artist for over 25 years and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Art at the University of Kentucky, Asbury University, and Eastern Kentucky University teaching courses in drawing, painting, art appreciation, art theory and criticism, and others as his schedule permits.He is a two-time recipient of the prestigious Al Smith Fellowship in the Visual Arts awarded by the Kentucky Arts Council, and his past is awash with major exhibits (solo, two-person, and group), all over the country dating as far back as 1999. You can check out the details and his spectacular portfolios on his website, patrickadamsart.com.
His most recent exhibit of New Work was at Aberson Exhibits in Tulsa, OK last month, and he is participating in an upcoming group show (May 4-19), Dirty Pictures, at the Atrium Gallery – Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, CA.I bet that got your attention, didn’t it?Chill.It’s all about landscapes—the good earth! We wouldn’t expect anything less from Patrick Adams since many of his paintings can be found in a number of private and corporate collections, such as the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (Columbus, OH), Mayo Clinic (Jacksonville, FL), Hilliard Lyons (Louisville, KY), and Gaylord International Convention Center (Washington, DC).
I don’t think we have to worry that these successes will prompt Adams to stop painting and composing. He couldn’t if he wanted to because he seems to subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea in T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men that “Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the shadow.”Without both darkness and light, between which that shadow lies, there can be no color, no landscapes. Adams’ knowledge of this means he can look forward to a great future—struggle and all! He himself declares, “My plan is to keep throwing paint at my canvases until something sticks that I can call good. I will likely die trying.”
(All images and music courtesy of the artist)
Related in UnderMain: Other Lexington artists who mix mediums