New York

Jonathan Adolphe

Bess Cutler Gallery

Like the codes Jonathan Adolphe uses to signal his oblique messages, the works shown here are at once full and evocative, and oddly impoverished. Using flags, sign language, braille, written English, and a cryptogram composed of stick figures of dancing men (invented by Arthur Conan Doyle for Sherlock Holmes to decipher), the artist spells out messages on half-painted, rectangular boards. Strips of lead have been sunk into the center of these so that some elements can be stamped directly into the work rather than painted onto it. The pieces seem like bits of flotsam, not just because the boards have a weathered look, but because the words on them form such fragile expressions, pleas, names, and half-heard phrases. They suggest that this is all that has survived from the wreckage of some life.

Several pieces, such as Kill Me and Fly, House Wife Poor No Friend, and Skin Pain (all works, 1989) come across as distress calls, words heard through the static of a shortwave radio broadcast or uttered, with an effort all out of proportion to its result, by someone too weak or emotionally exhausted to say any more. Others, such as Charlie November, Hotel Sierra, and Foxtrot, are based on the words used to represent letters used during radio communications and on semaphore flags, but divorced from that context they’re both cryptic and laden with meanings. The word “foxtrot,” for example, is the spoken code for the letter F, represented in semaphore by a flag with a diamond in it (which itself can be used to mean “disabled, communicate with me”). But the word also carries an air of nostalgia and melancholy, as the name of a dance no longer danced. The various connotations of past pleasures and current helplessness combine to create a narrative of someone else’s despair, raised by the most meager of signs––a flag, a single word, a few hand signals, some stick figures in a line.

The tone of deprivation is reinforced by the way the signs are presented: sign language, braille, semaphore, and Conan Doyle’s dancing men all require that the messages they encode be spelled out letter by letter, slowly, and with great concentration and effort. The first two in particular, with their intimations of deafness and blindness, give the sense of someone groping for a means of expression, for some way to get these smallest utterances across. But an irony of pictographs is that one is tempted to read as an image what in fact has primarily linguistic content. Viewed in this light, the dancing men become the most intriguing elements. One watches the little stick figures, sunk in the lead strips, trying with their ungainly gestures and calisthenics to spell out a message as terse as “Injury Noted,” or as curt and ironic as “Ha Ha Ha.” The gestures seem particularly futile, and the figures so intent on their task that, by their very poverty and inadequacy, they make the works manifest a certain generosity of spirit; the objects are transformed into evocations at once mysterious, comically frantic, and piteous.

James Lewis