Phoebe Adams is a painter and sculptor who exhibited regularly in New York for a decade (1985–95). Three years ago, I wrote a short essay, “Response to Place: Color,” on her paintings and Teresa Booth Brown’s collages for a brochure published by the Ucross Foundation accompanying an exhibition at the Ucross Art Gallery in Wyoming (February 15–May 17, 2019). Currently, she divides her time between New Mexico and Maine, two very different landscapes and climates, both of which inform her work. The 10 paintings, measuring 30 by 40 inches, in her exhibition Phoebe Adams: Nomad Walking at David Richard Gallery (October 2–November 11, 2022) are done in acrylic and acrylic gouache on paper, linen, and wood panels. The paper, linen, and canvas are mounted on unframed panels that extend out from the walls and seem to be floating in air. 

Describing Adams as “an avid walker in Maine, New Mexico, and Iceland” by Debra Barlow in her catalogue essay, the artist’s paintings are inspired by her recollections of walks she’s taken and material she’s read on the natural sciences. The patterns and clusters of abstract lines evoke movement and the unseen forces animating the natural world. Attuned to what she calls “small details”(which I take to mean things apt to go unnoticed), the imagery hovers between abstract marks and recognizable natural forms, such as tree trunks, rocks, and running water. Her use of color sits between the realistic and unreal, contributing a hallucinatory effect to many of the works. 

Installation view of Phoebe Adams: Nomad Walking at David Richard Gallery. Left: “What is Carried Away” (2021), acrylic gouache on paper mounted on wood panel, 30 x 40 inches; right: “We Are the Asteroid” (2022), acrylic gouache on wood panel, 30 x 40 inches 

In “Precious Trees” (2021), yellows and celadon green, with traces of earth-red and gray violet, infuse the tree-like presences she conjures with an unearthly light. Her imaginative recreation of our everyday surroundings is a reminder of how fleeting and transmutable the material world can be. The fact that trees appear branchless, suggesting deforestation, with their tops cut away, and we see a sky above them, adds a sense of urgency to the work.

At the same time, in “What We Bring to the Forest” (2021), something jarring happens. The work depicts two tree trunks against a black ground. Vertical lines and streaks articulate the bark, with clusters of greenish-yellow circles between and beyond the trunks. Extending in from the right edge, she has painted the outline of three French curve-like shapes, with bright bubble-gum pink flaring out from the forms’ outer edges. This visual disruption enables the painting to resist explanation. What are the forms? What does the pink represent? Contrary to what viewers might expect, the pink takes on a sinister aura.

Adams, whose work has long been informed by an ecological awareness of erosion and our despoiling of the landscape, wants to memorialize change and the ephemeral: a moment of pale yellow morning light, deep blue flowing water, rivulets of melting ice, or the uneven ground underfoot. Rather than walking down paths, she ventures into undomesticated landscapes that are both open and closed. She celebrates a world threatened by our greed. As she wrote in a moving piece published in the Maine Arts Journal (Fall, 2022), “Let me give dissonance its sprawl.” 

Phoebe Adams, “Precious Trees” (2021), acrylic gouache on wood panel, 30 x 40 inches

Phoebe Adams: Nomad Walking continues at David Richard Gallery (526 West 26th Street, Suite 9E, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 11. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

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