New York

Amy Adler

One might answer the title of Amy Adler’s recent exhibition “What Happened to Amy?” with another question, “How did Amy manage to look so pretty during her awkward teenage years in the unfashionable ’70s?” Such concerns may seem trite, but to anyone who struggled with puberty, long hair, and peasant smocks, the breezy composure of the barefoot girl in these self-portraits is remarkable. This unflappable self-confidence is only the most obvious of the myriad ways in which the five pictures that constituted this exhibition seemed to present a false picture. The more complicated deceptions arose from the very nature of the reproductions themselves.

A Los Angeles–based artist, Adler has exhibited a number of works in the recent flurry of “queer” shows, including the important survey organized by Larry Rinder and Nayland Blake, “In a Different Light.” As removed as the works in her first New York solo show may have been from direct engagement with issues of gay identity, they nonetheless departed from conventional expectations at every turn. Although the pictures looked like drawings, they were in fact photographs of the artist’s own series of pastel sketches which were based on snapshots taken of her in a park over a decade ago. The images are monochromatic, rendered in a warm rusty palette that evokes the discoloration of snapshots as they, like memory, lose their clarity, once-sharp contrasts fading into softened impressions. On the other hand, these colors also scream ’70s earth tones, recalling a bygone era whose fads seem only one jot less dated and corny than the medium of pastels. Once the stuff of Impressionism, today pastels evokes the painfully sincere products of Sunday painters and Bob Ross aficionados. Yet there is nothing unsophisticated about these works and their play on issues of originality. Having photographed her pastel drawings, Adler destroyed the works on paper, and made only one print of each of the pictures, thereby recovering an aura of uniqueness for her work.

What do all these minor deceptions add up to? Nothing less than a subtle affirmation of the possibilities for self-representation. The photographs show Adler posing in a playground. Seeming to follow off-camera directions, she sits on a swing, leans against a fence, or squats on a curb, her legs parted, head down, drawing with a stick in the dirt. In each shot she peeks out from under her long hair and meets the viewer’s gaze with her body turned toward us, her expression one of unsmiling intensity. Her demeanor is a dangerous combination of childlike obedience and sexual vulnerability. These pretty pictures thinly mask a young woman’s discomfort, one palpable enough to prompt speculation about who took these photos in the first place.

The answer to this nagging question is no more a part of this exhibition than the video that documents the artist attacking and ripping apart her original wall-sized drawings, which, inexplicably enough, was not available for viewing. Even if the destruction documented in this video is nobody’s business, the existence of this mystery tape points even more plainly than the photographs in the show to how Adler’s photographs-cum-drawings-cumphotographs function as performative works. On the other hand, one might speculate that this withholding is part of the work’s larger scheme of discrete revelations and disclosures. The fact that, for example, these photographs were taken on Fire Island—a longtime haven for gay adults—and not some anonymous playground suggests that one could pursue a private line of inquiry in attempting to answer the question of “what happened to Amy.”

Ingrid Schaffner

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