PRINT April 1999


Nervous Character, 1999, one of three new works in Amy Adler's recent show at the Margo Leavin Gallery in Los Angeles, takes its name from the spine of a book Adler photographed several years ago: Nervöse Karakter by the Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler. The latter-day Adler's piece is a sequence of twenty-four large-scale photographs of drawings, evocative of the twenty-four frames that make up a single second of film. While Adler describes the work as a study in futility “because the action never really moves forward,” with Nervous Character she has managed to move her work along, pushing past the coming-of-age themes on which she made her reputation.

Born in 1966, Amy Adler grew up in New York City, where she attended Cooper Union as an undergraduate. She earned her MFA at UCLA in 1995. At art school. Adler evolved her idiosyncratic process: She makes a drawing of a photograph, takes a picture of the drawing, then destroys the drawing. After seeing several documentaries on the making of an animated movie, she became fascinated by “the way an individual animation cell vanishes into the finished movie”—an idea she explores in Nervous Character. Unlike her earlier drawings, in which she produced dark tones by accumulating marks on a light piece of paper, the drawings for Nervous Character were made by building up light areas on dark paper, a “sculptural” process that reminded her of the application of “skin” over a three-dimensional model for animation.

On the afternoon following Adler's opening, we sat by the swimming pool at her gallerist's house in the Hollywood Hills, just a few blocks north of Mann's Chinese Theater and the legendary junction of Hollywood and Vine, the epicenter of the West Coast entertainment culture. Adler talked about how that culture has permeated her work and about what it means to live on “the outskirts of Hollywood” without being part of the Industry.

M.G. Lord


I see Nervous Character as a live-action, animated film. In my previous work, I'd always used preexisting photographs, but I took these pictures myself. And I directed myself to perform for the camera, so I suppose, for now, that makes me the actor-writer-director.

Nervous Character is twenty-four photographs of twenty-four drawings. By drawing each frame individually, it was as if the drawing were moving and the camera were stopping the action. Each drawing, despite my efforts to make them identical, is slightly different, which, to me, ultimately matched the idea of photographing a person in motion—two frames of the same person could never be the same. The motion would cause, for example, the hair to fall differently, and it was amazing to watch that happening in the drawings when I eventually stood behind the camera.

I don't think the term “self-portraiture” applies directly here—or really to any of my work. I'm the subject in only about half my pictures; but rather than seeing myself as the subject, I think I'm playing a part: Sometimes I'm the lead, sometimes I'm not.

Recently I made a piece called Very Lolita, which was partly inspired by a collection of head shots I have of young actresses before they were discovered. These actresses rose to stardom, but there are so many similar pictures of girls who didn't. When I was fourteen, there was an open call on Broadway for the part of Lolita. Some adults I knew rallied together and forced me to go. Edward Albee was directing the play and after my audition, apparently, he scribbled “very Lolita” on a note pad. The photographs I took for this piece were of my drawings based on the headshots—with crazy '80s hair and makeup—that I had to submit for that audition. It's so obvious that I didn't want to be Lolita, so the pictures are all kind of off the mark, which was an odd thing to try and draw.

My subjects alternate between celebrity and anonymity. I've used specific actors (River Phoenix, for one) as if they are members of a cast, making cameo appearances, interacting as they would in a movie alongside anonymous characters. This possibly elevates the nobodies into somebodies and vice versa.

Do you know these fan magazines like Teen Beat, Tiger beat, BOP? It's amazing looking at them now, as a grown-up. because I barely recognize a single person. Anyway, BOP has a page called, “p.s. I Love You” where girls send in pictures they've drawn of their favorite young stars. There's something incredibly sad and funny about that, a love and a longing so intense that it inspires drawing as a way to become intimate with that otherwise untouchable body, to make him your boyfriend, to make him your own. But there's also something tragically hopeful about it—he might actually see the drawing and, through it, recognize you. A few years ago I drew this kid from Boy Meets World and mailed it to BOP. I chose him because he was so blank, so ordinary, he could be anything to anybody. Anyway, a few months later they actually published it! They said it was by “Amy, a West Hollywood gal.” One of my friends said they thought the drawing was “too mature” to really pose as a teenager's, but I drew it as well as I could, I imagine just like the other girls did.

As far back as I can remember I've been interested in some sort of negotiation or reconciliation between photography and drawing. I work in both media yet can't say I belong in either. It's like a two-way mirror: not totally transparent or opaque—it's both and it's neither. Out of respect for my drawings (which I destroy once they're photographed), I don't make multiple editions. The one photograph I take is the only record that the drawing ever existed. Where the photograph and the drawing meet has to be this hypercontrolled space because, for one thing, photography by its very nature has an aggressive tendency to multiply and it's unbelievably difficult to restrain it. As I'm working on a drawing, I'm aware of its impending fate—its imprisonment—in the photograph. You should see this Disney cartoon I've got hanging in my studio; it's from a Sleeping Beauty coloring book. The Evil Queen has the Prince in shackles and she says, “I'll let you go, in one hundred years!” For me, the drawing is the prince.