James Adley

Muskegon Museum of Art

James Adley’s canvases are unabashedly Modernist: they exist as indexes of the act of painting, eschewing “readymade” images of both nature and culture. The surfaces of Adley’s paintings are mapped by striated layers of color that interact as compositional events, creating multivalent levels of space. The artist’s movement is embodied in painterly marks created with such implements as rakes, trowels, push brooms, rollers, and squeegees. Adley’s art asserts the body as the mediator of experience, and the trace as the physical remenant of the phenomenal world. He succeeds most when the work is no longer contained within a field of perception, but in fact becomes the field of perception, as in 139-A: Prelude, 1988, 139-B: Transition, 1988, and 139-C: Finale, 1988–89.

Adley’s work is a foil to the current dogma that posits Modernism as a discourse in ruin, as a putative hegemony fractured by a crisis of legitimation. Hal Foster, for example, has referred to it as a “utopian dream of a time of pure presence, a space beyond representation.” In the case of Adley’s abstractions, the return to the things themselves makes presence and representation correlative. Even the most ascetic abstraction is a made thing, a work that illuminates, however obliquely, an intention. Martin Heidegger states, “To be a work means to set up a world.” The “world” created here is one in which art is practiced as a mode of knowledge and, following Heidegger’s retrieval of the Greek techne, a way of revealing an representing thing. For Adley, art is a metaphor of the cosmos, an allegory of the mind in its process of creating order.

As the artist approaches 60, his paintings serve as proof that truly great Modernist abstraction can be more than the mute by-product of a capitalist oligarchy. The silence commanded by Adley’s canvases is not one borne of compliance or complicity, but of contemplation (another currently discredited notion), whereby the field of being becomes phenomenologically bracketed. This model of experience is undeniably utopian. However, in the public sphere of this country’s close, as “discourse” often devolves into ideological slogans, it is important that art resist being reduced to a serious of sex-second soundbites. By engaging in his painted discourse on the resolution of conflict, Adley makes a case for questioning Modernism’s reputed untimely demise.

Vincent A. Carducci