San Francisco

Bobby Neel Adams

Force Nordstrom Gallery

Our sense of the grotesque changes as our relation to the body changes. With so much current discourse focusing on the history of the body, body manipulations, body invaders, and the obsolescence of the body, it is not surprising to see the grotesque becoming a prevalent art form again. This is especially true for photography, whose powers of controlled manipulation have redefined the grotesque for our time. As the evidential veracity of photography has become more and more questionable, many artists have foregrounded photographic manipulation as an “antique” conceit.

Whereas Doug and Mike Starn, for instance, de- and reconstruct the photograph in response to art history, Bobby Neel Adams responds to the body before him. In his current work, subjects are photographed from the waist up, nude, and the resultant black and white prints are then sliced, faceted, burned, excoriated, woven, punched, torn, recombined, and rephotographed. The manipulations are not illusionistic; although the final print always constitutes a single surface, you can always see where the knife went in. In contrast to the Starns’ warm browns and yellows, Adams’ gunmetal-blue-toned prints lend an appropriate coolness to the luminous flesh tones he depicts.

Adams’ portrait subjects are artists and performers, various members of San Francisco’s demimonde. With names like Tracy Dick, Frank Discussion, and Tornado Terhune, these are people who have taken an active role in the creation of their own identities and appearances, and they participate here in the fictive figuration, setting up the eventual distortions with extravagant gestic poses and grimaces.

A number of portraits result from the visual equivalent of stuttering. A single feature of the subject’s anatomy is repeated, piled up, and exaggerated. The more obvious distortions land in the category of broad caricature, but others involve more subtle transformations. The coherent body dissolves into something more sinister and playful, like the supernatural beauty of Tornado Terhune (all works, 1989), or the flayed-man bliss of Robert Rasmussen, aka Redd Ekks, in which a tattooed man is abraded and skinned in patterns that echo and extend his tattoos.

There is a certain ominous familiarity in some of the images. Wires protrude from inside someone’s chest. Smoke curls from one figure’s eyes, from another’s breasts. One beefy character is sliced apart and then riveted back together like a tin man. We recognize these bodies from our own worst fears. The ultimate aspiration of the grotesque, defined by Wolfgang Kayser as the attempt “to invoke and subdue the demonic aspects of the world,” is only glimpsed in this work. But the images are compelling, and are certainly strong enough to remind us why the visceral effect of the grotesque has long been prized as a thing in itself, as a way to loosen the bonds between spirit and matter.

David Levi-Strauss