New York

Dennis Adams

Kent Fine Art

Frequently installed on city sidewalks or in outdoor urban spaces, Dennis Adams’ sculptures derive their subversive edge in part from context. In his series of structurally distorted, marginally functional bus shelters, for instance, back-lit images replacing the usual advertisements depict political events related to local life and history. A Toronto shelter was graced by a photograph of Native Canadians whose society was displaced by industrial development, and his project for the city of Münster incorporated an image from the Klaus Barbie trial in session at that time. Even when Adams moves indoors, he tends to exploit specific environments; in an uncomfortable reminder of how and where we spend our money, the artist sheathed the ticket booth for the Whitney Museum’s “Image World” exhibition last fall in photographs of homeless men.

In this show, however, the works seem uncharacteristically decontextualized. Terminus (all works 1990), consists of a row of four adjacent bus shelters, the open sides of which are shoved up against a black wall. In the first three the fluorescent tubes of imageless light boxes are exposed like luminous skeletons; a black and white photograph of Noriega’s destroyed bunker hovers on the wall between the third and the fourth. The work’s title and the black wall suggest finality, “last stops,”—the end of power and possibly of life. Both bus stops and bunkers are shelters, places of waiting and empty shells. Adams presents the bare bones of structures that have lost their purpose, that have become literally and metaphorically dysfunctional.

A work entitled Cash Window III, a bank cashier’s booth with two slots for passing currency, suggests a kind of endless, pointless circulation of money. The reading is reinforced by the black wall behind the glass; where we would expect to see a friendly teller’s face, instead, our own perplexed stares are reflected. Craning one’s neck around the side, with some effort, one sees an enlarged, back-lit photograph (and its mirrored image) of a dead man lying in a coffin. A text beside the work identifies the figure as a Bucharest martyr and the sense of victimization is reinforced by the man’s bruised and discolored visage. This physicality, along with the almost lurid “living color” of the oversized image, contrasts sharply with the cool industrial veneer of the cash window. On the front of Cash Window IV, exposed fluorescent tubes like those in Terminus reveal the skeletal framework illuminating the image at the rear. The back side features another dead man’s face, this time seen upside-down and at an angle. Again we have to peer around the side to see the victim, and in this way Adams makes us aware of the effort involved in seeking out the unseen in our society, from oppressed native or immigrant populations, to displaced homeless people, to the casualties of international economilitaristic strife.

By now Adams knows how to manipulate his signature devices, and his structural forms and found images resonate with significant associations. Nevertheless, removed from the real-world context, his works lose their edge. In this case the sterility of the gallery too easily fuses with the sterility of his own quasi-architectural insertions. In this chillingly neutral environment the political events depicted in the photographic images seem too remote to have any appreciable impact on us.

Lois E. Nesbitt