Though he’s been a prominent artist for far too long to be saddled with labels like “meteoric rise,” it’s hard to fully convey just how massive a year 2017 was for the New York-based multimedia artist Derrick Adams. Since the beginning of the year, Adams has been the subject of a solo exhibition at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, represented Tilton Gallery at the 2017 Independent Art Fair, held a solo exhibition at the California American Art Museum, and has produced two sprawling institutional projects.
One, held at the Countee Cullen Library in partnership with Studio Museum of Harlem, found the artist creating a dialog with the late, iconic African-American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. The other, entitled Future People, saw Adams dive into the archive of the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago and craft a series of collages, videos, and sculpture installations based on the images he found there.
Both of those exhibitions convey the joy and beauty found in engaging with Adams’s work. Adams— recognizable through his thick beard and always draped in streetwear, Yeezy sneakers and his signature baseball cap— is usually in a rather jubilant mood that totally dismantles notions of the “difficult artistic genius.” He very well might be a genius and is almost definitely one of our most important artists, but his work radiates from a place of positivity. Those aforementioned exhibitions found Adams looking past the oppression that African Americans have long faced, and instead focusing on their often overlooked achievements in the fields of scientific innovation, product design, and fashion design.
While so many artists, crushed under the weight of Trump and the endless rollout of intellectually and morally bankrupt GOP policies, are making work that dwells in the misery, Adams is making beautiful art that shines its spotlight on positivity. “I want people to focus on these triumphant moments,” says Adams. “Staying positive is challenging sometimes, of course, but I really want to focus on all the innovations that black Americans have contributed to society. To me, these positive moments will ultimately have more weight in the future of history.”
Capping off his tremendously successful year (and I haven’t even mentioned that Adams’s work was featured in an episode of the HBO series Insecure), Adams just opened a new solo exhibition at Tilton Gallery. Entitled Figures in the Urban Landscape, the mixed media works on paper and wood build on the artist’s Deconstructed Worker series. In the show, Adams presents human subjects fragmented by color and shape skewing closer to traditional portraiture than anything previously found within his diverse and sprawling practice (performance, video, paint, sound, collage, and multimedia sculpture). The subjects derive from both his imagination as well as the photographs he shoots of people on the street.
As with all of Adams’s works, there is a delicate balance between form and content in the pieces. Adams is, first and foremost, a formalist. “I realized that my narratives aren’t always going to be narratives that viewers will be acquainted with,” he says. “So I knew that the work should be visually attractive enough for them to want to further investigate what it is that I’m trying to say.”
Within some of the portraits are literal roads running through the subjects. By roads, I mean Adams adorned them with markings made to look like asphalt roadways accentuated by small plastic cars. With this gesture, Adams draws attention to the relationship between human and place. The viewer is forced to ask the question, “Who is this person, where is he/she going?” But unlike so many artists, Adams does try and offer some answers, and reaffirms his subject’s control over his/her environment. “I am central to my own narrative, and I constructed the environment around me.”
In a political climate that feels treacherous at best and soul-crushing at worst, Adams sees beauty in the individual’s freedom to take ownership over their own choices. When there are people, there are always solutions, his work suggests. “There can be both positive and negative impetuses for making art,” says Adams. “Sometimes people are reacting to the overwhelming things that are happening around them and make art without proposing solutions. What people should know is that regardless of the political climate I’m going to make the art that I want to make.”
Adams’s art is truly successful in its functioning as an outgrowth of his own personality. I first met Adams at a show he curated for SVA in 2016 entitled The Beat Goes On, in which he included other black artists using sound and music in their practices: Elia Elba, Kevin Beasley, and Meka Jean amongst them. His enthusiasm for and celebration of the artists he was presenting was infectious. He doesn’t seem to exude any of the toxic competitiveness and narcissism that drives so much of the art market.
“Celebration” should be the operative word in any critique of Adams’s work. His work celebrates the under-celebrated. He celebrates the scientific achievements of people like Edwin Eugene Mayer, a gifted African-American product designer who invented the line of stereoscopes known as Viewmasters, or the artistic achievements of people like Patrick Kelly as well as Adams’s own contemporaries; he also draws attention to the millions of underrepresented people in the world who are achieving things every day. It is not that his work is “dull” or “cheery.” On the contrary, it’s rather sharp, insightful, and unashamedly political. But he does have a way of filtering out the oppression, the negativity, and the Donald Trumps and Steve Bannons of the world, to shine a spotlight on the humans using imagination to move the world forward.
Imagination, Adams often says, is radical. “People who aren’t even celebrities are contributing,” says Adams. “Their minds. Their knowledge. And that’s the real African American story. I know there are awful things going on around me. And I’ll deal with them in other ways. But my art is my sanctuary.”
“Figures in the Urban Landscape” is on view at Tilton Gallery, Upper East Side, until January 6.