Art review: Ryan Adams wants you to read between the shapes

Ryan Adams, “Out Grow” Images courtesy of the artist

New galleries seem to be proliferating in Maine. One of them, Notch8 Gallery in Portland’s Old Port, is holding its second exhibition, a group of paintings by Ryan Adams titled “Second Season,” which runs through November 12. (Next week I’ll be covering another one, Dunes, on Congress Street, as well as the more established Buoy Gallery in Kittery.)

By now, Ryan Adams is — deservedly — a household name in Maine. His mural work, on which he occasionally collaborated with other artists, including his wife, Rachel Gloria Adams (first Notch8 show), graces many buildings from Kittery to Milo. His work has been shown at the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland.

Adams’ mural-scale, graffiti-influenced work, which features messages whose letters are partially obscured by vibrant colors and geometric patterns, is widely admired for its intricacy and layering, which transcend its roots in graffiti and sign painting. It’s a unique hybrid that’s instantly recognizable and irresistibly intriguing, inviting viewers to decipher the message so deftly buried within the patterns. One day, while working on a mural with another artist, Adams told me, his colleague put down his tools, looked at Adams’ work, and exclaimed in amazement, “Man, your brain !

This statement could serve as the sum total of my experience at Notch8 on the opening night of “Second Season.” But I realize that a bit of context might be helpful. Many of these works were created during residencies at the Indigo Arts Alliance in Portland and the Surf Point Foundation in York. Clearly, these were exceptionally fruitful interludes in his creative process. The first thing that blew my mind was how much Adams moved towards abstraction. The messages are so cleverly integrated into many of the paintings’ designs that you might miss them altogether.

Critics and collectors have compared his work to the Analytical Cubism of Braque, Gris and Picasso. It’s tempting, especially when looking at a painting like “Play to Win,” with its mottled colors and fractured planes. But this comparison reveals a constraint of the art world, thankfully changing, that still binds the work to a canon of white art.

In reality, Adams’ work has no such precedent. His inspirations come from graffiti artists – also called “writers” for their use of lettering – such as DONDI (late Donald Joseph White) and Futura 2000 (Leonard Hilton McGurr). The latter pioneered abstract street art, while the former preferred a more readable visual form. Today, the two artists’ work sells for five and six figures at auction.

Ryan Adams, “It’s All About You”

The messages in most paintings from Adams to Notch8 are so engulfed in their geometries that they can be rendered almost unreadable. Interestingly, it highlights and reinforces our appreciation for his incredible discipline of formal composition (I repeat: “Man, your mind!”). They’re so complex, their sneaky foreground and background changes so dynamic, that it’s easy to just be sucked into them without discerning a single letter. Their surfaces fracture like diamonds. The energy they give off ripples, shimmers and vibrates.

But, of course, the messages are of paramount importance, often informing the palette and degree of obfuscation or clarity that Adams hears. A cheerful work like “It’s All for You” is, quite literally, the color of children’s toys because the sentiment relates to the Adams’ daughters, Nora and Zöe. Conversely, “Hold On”, featuring the red, green and black Pan-African flag, relates to the 1972 black pride song, “My People…Hold On”, by Eddie Kendricks.

Ryan Adams, “Unlike the Others”

Adams constantly jots down phrases that describe his experience of everyday life. Sometimes he wants these messages to confront the viewer, especially when they are political or social in nature. “Unlike the others”, for example, is easily readable. The palette is intentionally meaty, by which I mean browns, tans, moles, rosy beiges and whites.

The painting depicts a contemplation of his own status as a sort of outsider – both as a dark-haired man in one of America’s whitest states and, because he was raised among friends mostly white, not completely immersed in black and brown culture either. The grays throughout stabilize the painting but also underline the ambiguity of this condition (although he also admits that the palette may have been influenced by the colors of the rocks and sky outside his studio at Surf Point).

Yet the message is also dauntingly relevant today, so Adams allows it to dominate. In this way, it addresses the larger phenomenon of otherness that has persisted for centuries and seems to be gaining momentum again amid recalcitrant attitudes about race, sexuality, gender, nationalism, etc. .

Another surprise for those who know this artist only through his murals is how painterly Adams’ work can be, especially on this more intimate scale. The largest works probably measure no more than 2 by 3 feet, while various works measure just 8 by 12 inches.

In wall work, colors tend to be solid and flat to elicit a more graphic quality that is easily read and picked up from a distance or from a passing car. There is no such requirement in studio painting (although Pop Art certainly borrowed heavily from the graphic arts in this regard). For these works, Adams allowed himself the freedom to experiment with the application of mediums and colors.

Ryan Adams, “Hold On”

Therefore, the range of techniques exhibited here is fascinating: dry color on black (“Hold On”), acrylic and pencil (“You Good?”), color wash on compressed paper (“Yup” and “MHM” ), speckles (“Stay Petty”), collages (“Ayuh”), visible wet brushstrokes (“Never Do What They Do” and “Unlike the Others”), spray-painted lettering on backgrounds gradients (“Out Grow”).

One painting, “Everything Goes”, alternates various tones of black (some tinged with blue) and areas of gloss and matte. The matte shapes have an almost uncanny depth to the way they absorb all the light and space, especially when juxtaposed with brighter shapes that only inhabit the surface.

Ryan Adams, “Never Do What They Do”

There are many here. Lots of paintings could use a lot more breathing space. Just compare the experience of watching “Never Do What They Do,” which is isolated on a strip of wall, with a line of paintings hung inches away. “Never Do” completely pulls you in. But the size and vibrant colors of the tequila sunrise from “Out Grow” distract from the accompanying paintings, the lavender-toned “Play to Win” and the green and brown “Stay Petty.”

This can’t be helped, since the gallery is located in what was originally built in 1924 to be a clubhouse for the Portland Fraternity. Gallery owner Sharon Dennehy necessarily packed these paintings (otherwise she might have only had room for about five works in the main room). So it looks like an embarrassment of riches. Which, of course, it is.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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