New York

Mac Adams

John Gibson Gallery

Step off the elevator into a darkened hall. Turn left into the gallery and you’re immediately blinded by a searchlight aimed straight at you out of the darkness. What’s going on here? Something’s wrong. You walk toward the light—cautiously, because it’s blinding you and you can’t see where you’re going. Once inside the gallery you move outside the beam of light and discover that it’s coming from a motorcycle parked on a patch of dirt. There’s an orange nylon backpack beside the bike, and there are a woman’s clothes and half a dozen color snapshots spilling out of it. You study the backpack, the snapshots, the clothes, the bike, and you get the feeling that Something Happened. But what? A crime, certainly. Murder, probably. But can you be certain? Is there any proof? Then you notice something you had overlooked before: the corner of a blanket—the same blanket on which the woman was sitting in the snapshots—partly buried in a mound of dirt about 20 feet in front of the motorcycle. Surely that proves murder. But does it?

Mac Adams has left a lot of clues for you in this “mystery environment” called The Passenger. In fact, the work is chock-full of visual details, and everything is significant. The irritating thing—and also the thing that keeps the work alive—is that while all the clues support your suspicion about what has happened, none proves it conclusively. After all, there’s no body, and you can’t prove murder without a corpse.

In the show’s other mystery environment, The Bathroom, one has the same feeling that something evil has occurred, but again one is frustrated to prove it. The water has been left running in a bathtub filled with bubble bath. Cold cream, lipstick, and make-up are strewn on the floor as though knocked off the dressing table during a struggle. A framed photograph of a man and woman sitting on a bed has also been knocked over, its glass broken. Again, there’s a strong implication of violence by a man against a woman. But who is the man? An intruder? The man in the photograph? Perhaps even the photographer?

Adams has a fixed idea of what happened in each of these environments, and, even if he’s given you no proof that that particular event occurred, he’s arranged his clues to lead you to conclude that it almost certainly did. In The Passenger, a female hitchhiker has been murdered by the male motorcyclist. In The Bathroom, a woman has been murdered by the man on the bed with her in the photograph. Adams says he thinks of these mystery environments more as “whydunits” than as “whodunits,” which is to say that his interest is not in what can be deduced from the facts but in what can be understood only by examining our own knowledge of human nature and good and evil. By structuring his work in this way and forcing the viewer to look within himself for the ultimate answers, Adams, I think, pushes these works beyond Sherlock Holmes games. and into something much deeper and more universal, namely, morality.

Adams’ work achieves a goal that has often seemed nearly impossible—and therefore, perhaps, written off as undesirable—in contemporary art: to reach a wide, non-art-world audience while still working with highly formalized structures. Although his works are about morality and achieve their wide appeal through the audience’s familiarity with mystery novels, Adams is more concerned with the devices and structures used to tell the story than with the story itself. In the case of this show, this combination of formalism and accessibility resulted in work that was not only solid and provocative but—let’s face it—lots of fun.

Jeffrey Keeffe