DENVER — Derrick Adams: Transmission at the MCA Denver exposes the inadequate representation of black figures in the visual world. In the context of many exhibitions by Adams in recent months (Sanctuary at the Museum of Art and Design, Figures in an Urban Landscapes at Tilton Gallery) seeing three bodies of work that span 2014 to 2017 in Transmission, raises fresh interpretations of the artist’s contributions.
Adams’s series of Boxhead sculptures (2014) include a three-dimensional bust within an open-sided wooden frame manipulated to look like a TV set box. Irregular polygons substitute for a head, with hair on top to complete the illusion. The monochromatic background appears temporarily fastened by metal clamps. Instead of a white museum plinth, each artwork rests on two large cardboard boxes. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Adams said the avatars “are waiting for input and instruction.”
Facing the Boxhead avatars are flat television screens of fabric and paper known as the Colorbar Constellation series (2016). TV Guide covers featuring Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and the Cosby Show‘s Theo and Vanessa Huxtable (Malcolm Jamal Warner and Tempestt Bledsoe) float within the televisions borders among panels of solid color and dashiki cloth. In 2016, Adams told Interview Magazine:
I started revisiting what I used to look at as a kid and some of the shows that were on TV, and I realized a lot of those things are the reason why I think or feel a certain way. It’s not always negative but it’s definitely an imprinting structure.
The do-it-yourself quality of the two bodies of work elicit a compelling sense of incompleteness, as the viewer is pressed to consider what is missing within Adams’s presentation.
For the MCA Denver, Adams reintroduced his installation On presented at the California African American Museum in 2017. The Fabrication Station series (2016) is hung on massive walls painted with television color scale bars, an aesthetic decision based on the default screen he remembers seeing when TV reception was poor or broken. “The scale was a glitch of the antenna, a fragment of an image,” Adams told me. However, in the MCA’s recreation of the immersive room, a camera is watching visitors and live streaming to the museum website. A couch, stairs, countertop, and bed sit in front of each Fabrication Station TV like a stage, beckoning visitors to respond.
Trained in art education as an undergraduate at Pratt, Adams successfully produces a space for engagement and performance. But the inclusion of a camera in the gallery conjures the theories of the “oppositional gaze” by bell hooks and the composition of self through a third person’s consciousness by Frantz Fanon. What does it mean to make choices for an unseen audience, or filter a view of self through someone else’s perspective? What are the expectations? Understanding that approximately 75% of contemporary art museum visitors are white, he excitedly answered “of course,” when asked if that number was important for the concept.
“What if the beholder glances, glances away, driven by aversion as much as desire,” Fred Moten asks in his book In the Break (2003). “What if glancing is the aversion of the gaze, a physical act of repression, the active forgetting of an object whose resistance is now not the avoidance but the extortion of the gaze.” Arguably, the black characters in movies and television have improved from foils like “Sapphire” on Amos ‘n’ Andy or comedic entertainers of the 1990s sitcoms, but what types of images of black people fill screens beyond scripted fiction? Does a rich tapestry of black stories fill all cultural content, including the news, talk shows, and podcasts? Adams’s collages sometimes allow glue to bleed through paper or fabric to fray exposing his construction; other times his fine art training and craftsmanship hide the materials’ manipulations. Like a magician, he asks the audience, if he shows you how a trick is executed, what will you think of the illusion? Will you want to know more about the art of diversion or will you change the channel to be entertained?
When the exhibition extends to the Future People series (2017), Adams’s repeated practice of framing persists, converting a TV set into a window into space. Future People’s collages include images of Igbo objects, home goods invented by Charles Harrison and the faces of people that are part human, part satellite, all moving through space in a fusion of Afrofuturism, consumption, and a fragmented record of black culture. Although the vantage point of space may seem infinite, vision is limited through the portal.
From Transmission to recent work like “Figures in the Urban Landscapes” (2017), Adams presents a gaze interrupted; restricted by the size of a screen, the sightlines of a window pane, or confined by roadways. The figure in the frame and viewer can never inhabit the other’s space. The artworks’ limits accentuate how meaning produced by incomplete representation does not have definitive boundaries. Despite Adams’s use of dashiki and kente cloth, materials embedded with complex concepts of trade and place, or his many shades of mahogany in “Figures in an Urban Landscape,” the contained portal recalls a singular vision. By re-materializing fragments of popular culture as a critique of their proposed universality, Adams recasts their subjectivity.