Installation view of Figures in an Urban Landscape at Tilton Gallery (all photos courtesy Tilton Gallery)

The characters in Derrick Adams’s Figures in an Urban Landscape at Tilton Gallery are not only in the landscape; they are of it. Actually, more to the point, the urban landscape is of them, as in constituted by them, deriving complexity and cultural diversity from them. This idea is, for me, the crux of this show: to begin to explain the nature of urban environments (like New York City, where the artist lives and works), in all its sprawling cultural intricacy, you have to look at the environment’s inhabitants.

Adams’s key strategy is to depict black figures in a range of colors that point at the wide range of ethnic variability. In all the collages that make up the exhibition, each face is broken into a series of intersecting planes consisting of complementary colors related to brown. One face might have a dark brown upper lip, a cherry-wood lower lip, a cheek that matches the brown of the upper lip, a nose with a lighter, café au lait on one side, mahogany on the other, and a goldenrod yellow stripe forming the bridge. This is “Figure in the Urban Landscape 1” (2017). It’s representative of the multiplicity of hues that black folks in the US appear in, issuing from a complicated genetic heritage, inflected by European colonialism, voluntary migration, and war. Just look at the terminology that has evolved to describe the range of skin color: “high yella,” “red bone,” “ginger cake.” The (obvious) truth emphasized by this show is that “black” is a description of political affiliation, not appearance.

Derrick Adams, “Figure in the Urban Landscape 1” (2017)

Adams carries on this seminar with his mixture of fabrics clothing his figures. Several wear distinct kente cloth patterns that intersect each other — for example “Figure 3” and “Figure 6” (both 2017) — a clamor of color and design that is sophisticated and joyful. Adams also combines these kente cloth designs with plaids and gingham patterns that are typically associated with American, that is to say, European traditional clothing. Thus, the attire of black folks is depicted as a stylistic amalgamation, rather than an either/or opposition between European and African influences. This feels key to me because it resists the narrative of an authentically “black” culture that is only constituted in those materials and practices that denote (a mythologized or overly simplified) Africa.

There’s little mythology here. Running down and across each portrait are what look like lanes of traffic, with small toy cars seemingly in transit. Each figure’s motley visual construction provides the very ground for this city. Here is New York: full of color that both represents and mirrors our cultural syncretic eclecticism.

Installation view of Figures in an Urban Landscape at Tilton Gallery

There have been several exhibitions in the past autumn that have addressed the syncretism of African-American life: Sanford Biggers’s show at Marianne Boesky, William Villalongo at Susan Inglett; Kameelah Janan Rasheed at the Arts Center on Governors Island; Delano Dunn at Long Gallery in Harlem — which is to say this is a strongly consistent theme in the practices of artists of color. Adams’s way of addressing the topic is playful, fascinating, and poised. The gaze of these figures is in every instance calmly resolute. They know that they belong here.

Figures in an Urban Landscape continues at Tilton Gallery (8 East 76 Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 6.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...