Derrick Adams, In the House, 2010, digital C-print, 36 x 30".

Derrick Adams, In the House, 2010, digital C-print, 36 x 30".

Derrick Adams

Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts

Derrick Adams, In the House, 2010, digital C-print, 36 x 30".

Situated within a performing-arts complex, Derrick Adams’s exhibition “The World According to Derrick: Performative Objects in Formation” synced nicely with its surroundings. The show, organized by art historian (and Artforum contributor) Nuit Banai, tracked more than a decade of the New York–based artist’s production, dating back to his student days. From the beginning, Adams has invested his work with a high degree of performativity, though to call him a performance artist would be too limiting. Rather, he fluidly traverses the categorical distinctions typically drawn between performance and sculpture.

Throughout this exhibition, numerous references to walls, both metaphorical and actual, communicated Adams’s drive to acknowledge and negotiate obstacles of all kinds. In the hands of a less subtle artist, the faux-brick surfaces might have come across as dated parodies of Minimalist painting, but his projects are peppered with just the right measure of politically informed wit. For Four in One (The Same League), 2008, Adams lined up four “bodies,” edge to edge, along a wall, the chest of each composed of a faux-brick rectangular box outfitted with a brown hoodie. One of these “torsos” supported a small carved-wood sculpture of a contemporary-looking black youth that, from a distance, resembled a West African statuette. Multiple layers of embodiment were also demonstrated by a black-and-white photograph depicting the African-American artist, only the whites of his eyes clearly visible, gazing back at the camera menacingly from beneath a model of the White House, itself casting deep shadows into the surrounding darkness. Titled In the House, 2010, this work evoked both the contemporary fears associated with Obama’s election and perhaps the deeper US legacy of violence in response to perceived threats of blackness.

The barbed humor conveyed by Adams’s object-based works is only amplified and made more explicitly comedic in his performances. Notably, several sculptural elements presented in this show had previously appeared as props in live events. For example, a static work titled The Romantic, 2003, comprises a suit featuring a long, curling, taillike phallus sprouting a bouquet of flowers. Like Joseph Beuys’s felt suit, which could be an active element of his work whether worn or hung on a wall, Adams’s sculpture functioned both as costume and object in its own right. Regardless of the state in which a piece appears, Adams always stokes this tension between aggression and generosity. This dynamic was particularly evident in his video documentation of Pagan Rite, an interactive performance from 2002. Ostensibly taking place during a gallery opening, with guests circulating, smiling, presumably exchanging pleasantries (their words are inaudible), and holding glasses of red wine, the orderly scene comes unhinged as the participants begin spitting their drinks at one another, exposing the repressed urges of a familiar art-world ritual. For a new performance, The Sanctified Space, 2012, staged during the current exhibition’s opening, Adams sat behind a free-standing wall covered in floral wallpaper; he was invisible to the crowd save for two of his fingers, which he had painted gold and dangled through an aperture in the wall suggesting action through a glory hole. The structure stayed in place for the duration of the exhibition, encouraging visitors to imagine the various ways this now-unoccupied set might have been or could be put to use.

But perhaps what most unifies Adams’s varied works is the way in which they hint at the manipulability of social codes. Another wall-based piece, The Lesson, 2006, employs wooden alphabet blocks to spell out a message about the loss of innocence, claiming that, as a man, the artist must “put away all childish things.” The fact that he uses the communication tools of childhood to move into adulthood speaks eloquently of the power of ritual both to reinforce and to undermine traditional social and political structures.

Gregory Williams