New York

Mac Adams

Farideh Cadot Gallery

Mac Adams’ work has always expressed an impatience with the purely formal language of mainstream modernism and with the arbitrariness and self-referentiality of its esthetic decisions. Such impatience carries over to the current fashion for estheticizing the codes of commodity production where this is the sole referent to the work. In Adams’ work, though, meaning is born of the relation between things and the power invested in them by the imagination, and it is this relation that is addressed by the photographs and sculpture shown here in the exhibition “Shadows and Reflections.”

The staging of melodramas has been an integral part of Adams’ working process since his photographic “Mysteries” of the ’70s. Those scenes of unnatural death were never explicit; rather, the viewer was invited to take on a participatory role and, like Sherlock Holmes, to construct a narrative from a concatenation of signs or “clues” in the image. His recent photographs, from 1986 and ’87, refer back to that body of work; however, it is not the implied scene of a crime that is depicted but anamorphic reflections of it seen in the highly polished surfaces of an elegantly designed domestic object—kettle, lamp, teapot, coffeemaker. The image reduplicates the dramatic lighting and display techniques of the advertising photograph, maximizing the sensuous material qualities of the object, and suggesting its exclusiveness by isolating it in a sumptuous color field. But the pure, ordered, and self-contained world of the object is contaminated by deformed reflections of the violence of human relations: scenes of rape, political interrogation, or torture. Adams conjures a malevolence behind the cozy domestic facade, an expression of the dark anxiety of the social psyche that recalls the disquietude of Mannerism, and that has found its way to the surface in certain horror-movie genres, a recent example of which is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

As it happens, Lynch (who also directed Eraserhead and The Elephant Man) and Adams share a preoccupation with the bizarre and the carnivalesque, with humor as the alibi for an unaccountable terror. If Adams’ photographic reflections appear as grotesque versions of the funhouse distorting mirror, the sculptures (all 1986–87) refer to the illusionistic world of the itinerant circus performer. At first glance, these works—abstract forms made of cut and welded steel and set on tripod pedestals—seem to be mildly eccentric examples of Constructivism. Of course, this is not the whole story, for we quickly discover that each sculpture functions as a sort of “projector”—a conduit for a shadow image on the wall. The image—a juggler, human hydrant, sword swallower, etc.—appears when light, directed at the sculpture from a single point, is blocked by the solid form and passes through the apertures between the edges of its planes. In The Juggler the sculpture suggests the form of a film projector, or, with the tripod base, a camera. Form appears to turn inside out, in a play between open and solid, plane and volume, where the sculpture is the exposed armature concealing the image or “body” of the work. Another inversion is suggested by the carnival acts depicted, which are either penetrations or eviscerations of the body’s interior. These works reveal what formalism attempts to elide—the world of the irrational, of the carnival, where order and reason falter on the edge of chaos. This dark and mythic aspect of the work takes another turn in Adams’ project for Montclair State College in New Jersey: a 10-foot-high sculpture resembling a telescope or battery of guns pointing skyward, which will be installed by January, when, for one time in the year, the sun, earth, and moon will be in alignment and Ophiuchus the Snake Bearer (a constellation, and the little-known 13th sign of the zodiac) will be projected by moonlight onto the horizontal receiving plate at the work’s base.

Reviewed by Jean Fisher.