New York

Adam Straus

Adam Straus’ small paintings encased in sculpted lead frames are engagingly bright, colorful, and surprisingly lighthearted, despite his avowedly apocalyptic concerns. Lightness and lead: the growing toxicity of the environment, the endangerment of the world, our civilization’s impending loss of “nature” are all packaged here in this series of pretty paintings with names such as Fresh Air and Disintegrating Man, both 1991. But what these works are saying and the effect they have are not so easy to pin down.

While elegiac landscapes juxtaposed with words recalling the destruction of the environment at first seem predictable, the merry visual punch is surprising. It’s as if the author, rather than warning us of anything, has simply stated the obvious. It’s the lack of seriousness here that is so creepy. For instance, there is nothing especially somber about the crudely wrought lead frames; in fact, they seem almost whimsical. Made of awkwardly cut slices of lead, they suggest alternately avant-garde bonbon boxes or decoupage projects for shop class. The lettering, impressed into the soft metal with individual characters of type, is both random and full of charm.

As for the paintings, even the least attractive landscapes, with their lurid sunset colors and dramatic desert landscapes, recall Pop appropriations of magazine ads for luxury cars. As such, they compel us with their superfluousness. By touching something strong in memory that has less to do with nature per se than with nature as represented on television or the printed page, Straus reminds us that the nature our culture is now busily bidding good-bye to is in fact long lost, but that even so, we are entitled to our nostalgia.

The subjects of the most formally appealing of these paintings veer away from sunsets or highways and in the direction of night skies, cloud formations, and light. The luminous glazed surfaces and photography-inspired renditions of lighting effects recall work by Ross Bleckner, but there’s a lack of pretense to the formulation here; the interest in patterns from nature, verging on abstraction, remind one more of Constable’s skies. Appealing, too, is a series of paintings in which a man’s silhouette slowly dissolves, seemingly eaten away by a chemical solvent, or an image of a radioactive heart that has all the disarming directness of a homemade valentine.

These small works are, at their best, treasurelike mystery objects;their intimate scale, humorously haunting imagery, and engaging lack of pretense only leaven their portentous message.

Justin Spring