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Adam Simon’s Deadeye Realism

As is often the case with Simon’s work, the logo paintings require a period of conceptual catch-up before they can be seen as what they are, rather than as what they seem.

Adam Simon, “The Forge” (2016), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 63 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

To mark his third solo exhibition at Studio 10 in Bushwick, Sharon Butler of Two Coats of Paint asked Adam Simon to “put together a list of the things he’s been thinking about.”

One of the things he included (#8 out of 11) was his own Missing series of 8 x 6-inch paintings from the 1980s. In the catalogue essay I wrote for Pictures and Gestures, the artist’s first show at the gallery (April 27 – May 27, 2012), I described the series in the following passage:

[E]very morning at breakfast he found himself staring at a carton of milk, one side of which displayed a photograph of a smiling child with the word “MISSING,” in bold caps, printed above it. Every week would bring a new carton of milk and a new child’s face, all missing, all smiling.

The disconnect between the imagery deployed by a media campaign to shine a light on the problem of missing children and the emotional devastation wrought by a lost or abducted child began to filter into his work. He started a series of paintings that rendered the children’s faces with the same graphic simplicity as the “MISSING” banner above them.

The reduction amounted to two dots indicating the eyes and a slightly loopy curve marking the smile, which Simon painted on dozens of small, identically sized panels. Above each face, the word “MISSING,” cut out from a milk carton, was collaged across a dark band of color traversing what would be the child’s forehead.

At the time, the resulting images looked virtually indistinguishable from the proto-emoticon smiley faces infesting popular culture. Today, they seem to anticipate, eerily, the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. Either way, the effect is appalling.

Appalling is a word that some might apply to Simon’s decision to base his new series of works — grouped under the exhibition title, ICONS — on corporate logos. My initial response was less averse, but in other ways it was just as estranged as my reaction to the Missing series. As is often the case with Simon’s work, the logo paintings require a period of conceptual catch-up before they can be seen as what they are, rather than as what they seem.

For years Simon has been using paint rollers, acrylics, and Mylar stencils to create silhouetted, often overlapping images. The paintings in Pictures and Gestures were derived from stock photography depicting people at work and play, and his previous show, Swipe (February 7 – March 2, 2014), delved into art history, with silhouettes cribbed from works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Charles Demuth, Charles Ray, Jeff Koons, Robert Gober, among many others, all of which were recognizable despite their minimal, abstracted form. At the time, as Simon told Brett Wallace in an interview recently published on The Conversation Project:

[S]omebody said, “These are, kind of, like logos.” They were images from art history, but somebody said, “These are, kind of, like logos.” And, then I started thinking about the difference between the art history images that some of us carry around in our heads and the logos that way more people carry around in their heads. And there’s a, kind of, way of identifying with these images that is so much greater with logos than it is with art history, which tends to be an elite audience right?

The first logo painting I saw was in 12 Painters: The Studio School, 1974/2014 (November 20th, 2014 – January 10th, 2015), a group show at Steven Kasher Gallery celebrating the 50th anniversary of the New York Studio School. Tagged with a mock-Frank-Stella title, “Ovation (Triumph of Logos Over Pathos and Ethos)” (2014), it appeared at first glance (and many subsequent glances) as a large jumble of brilliantly colored, clean-edged abstract shapes.

Adam Simon, “ICONS,” installation view, from left: “Broken Windows” (2015), acrylic on canvas 72 x 63 inches; graphite study for “Broken Windows”; “Mrs. Whitney Rejoins Her Guests 2” (2016), acrylic on canvas 73 x 50 inches (click to enlarge)

It was only after the artist asked whether I could see the logos that they started to individuate among the translucent blue, green, and orange shapes against a white field: Windows, Twitter, McDonald’s, Disney, Arm & Hammer, and others.

A year later, on a visit to Simon’s studio, I found that he had pared down his imagery significantly. There were smaller paintings with just a handful of emblems, and the larger ones were characterized by a strong, simple design. Despite the restricted number of elements, not all of the brands on the large paintings were immediately apparent due to Simon’s crops and color changes — evidence that he was ratcheting-up the level of abstraction as the series evolved.

In doing so, Simon manages to foreground form and content simultaneously, setting them in conflict with one another. The shock of the Missing paintings is that each child’s face is reduced to the same three components, two dots and a curve, which obscure their individuality while projecting their bright eyes and smiles — the instruments of emotional connection. In the process, the imagery lays bare the manipulation behind the advertiser’s craft while rendering into a poignant cliché, a contradictory term if there ever was one.

At the same time that Simon was engaged in his Missing series, the artist Ashley Bickerton, working in his Neo-Geo phase, made a piece called “Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles)” (1987-1988), a boxy, wall-mounted sculpture assembled out of aluminum, wood, rubber, leather, and chrome-plated steel, among other materials. As with other works of this period, a central feature of “Tormented Self-Portrait” was an assortment of logos, with brands such as Bayer aspirin, TV Guide, Renault, Marlboro cigarettes, Gusano Rojo mescal, and Trojan condoms emblazoned across its front like bumper stickers.

The sculpture’s cold satire — the breakdown of an individual, in this case, the artist, into his habits of consumption — struck an expressly nihilistic chord at the time, the last gasp of the crass, materialistic Reagan years. Simon’s logos, despite their surface associations, are at a far remove from Bickerton’s you-are-what-you-eat sensibility. For one, Bickerton’s emblems are strictly illustrative, with a specific designation and function. Simon’s are ambiguous, formally playful, and engaged with the wider culture, including their own art historical lineage.

“The Forge” (2016) is the most recent and most abstract of the works on display. It takes its title from Francisco de Goya’s masterpiece, “The Forge” (c.1817), at the Frick Collection, depicting three blacksmiths at work, one dramatically swinging a sledgehammer, while its content is derived from the Arm & Hammer logo. To virtually everyone who sets eyes on it, the painting comes off as a hard-edged abstraction made from two interlocking shapes, one black and one blue, but the blue shape is actually the negative space bounded by the bicep, forearm and hammer. Simon’s disregard for a clearly communicated commercial image takes his work out of the range of satire and into a spikier, more unsettled visual terrain.

On Thursday night, in a conversation at Studio 10 between the artist and Keith Sanborn, who wrote a lengthy text for the exhibition’s catalogue, Simon spoke of the spatial and coloristic challenges he encountered while working on the paintings, as well as the beauty he finds in advertising design.

There is no political agenda to these works — and how could there be, with references to products and services as diverse as social media, sports equipment, breakfast cereal, and baking soda? Simon’s prime motivation is visual (he referred at one point to his paintings as landscapes) and his formal moves follow from there — the luminous red, blue, white, violet, and amber of “Mrs. Whitney Rejoins Her Guests 2” (2016) [the Kellogg’s K] or the abstracted cropping of “Divergence” (2015) [the Nike swoosh] and “Broken Windows” (2015) [the Twitter bird].

The titles and formal alterations are purposely intended to distract the viewer from the corporate source. “Broken Windows” refers to the shard-like shapes surrounding the cropped blue bird, their colors (ocher, black, off-white) pushing them forward in space to the extent that the eye roams around the edge of the painting without settling on the bird. The same is true with “Divergence,” in which the dark shapes possess such a presence that the white curve of the swoosh comes off as a negative shape and not the subject of the work. (In fact, when I saw these two canvases in the studio, I was hard pressed to discern the logo in either of them.)

Adam Simon, “Divergence” (2015), acrylic on canvas, 50 x 73 inches

You can look at Simon’s work as Neo-Pop or Neo-Neo-Geo, but that would be missing a key aspect of the work, which is its frankness. (Simon and Sanborn joked that the title of their conversation was “Not Pop.”) As with the Missing series, Simon is working with what he sees right in front of him, without irony or condescension, interpreting these motifs not to send a message but simply to make a painting.

His mention in passing of landscapes is crucial, in that Simon paints the Nike swoosh as Gustave Courbet painted the seaside at Etretat — as a realist. And like Courbet, who scandalized the French Academy by submitting monumental canvases starring peasants to the Salon, his social scrutiny seeps into the works’ supposed objectivity. The close cropping of the logo enables it to dominate the viewer’s field of vision as it partially conceals its identity, enforcing its subliminal hegemony of visual culture: both there and not there, it quietly operates as the landscaped backdrop of our daily lives.

During the talk, Sanborn referred to a term from his essay, ikonocracy, “to rule by the image,” which resonates deeply, and darkly, with the current moment, as flash all but vanquishes substance. Simon noted that he began the series around the time of the Citizen’s United decision, and its implications of outsized corporate leverage on the democratic process may have influenced its direction.

Sanborn also posited that these images have entered the realm of the sacred, if one were to define sacred as the rituals performed every day — a notion upending the perception that the encroachment of branding, whatever the intent, is a violation of painting’s sacred space. Taken this way, Simon’s paintings represent the degree, in the globalist era, to which we are willing to acquiesce or resist — a core question about cultural drift that’s not going to go away.

Adam Simon: ICONS continues at Studio 10 (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through June 12.

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