On View: Bruce Adams at the Castellani
Leda, oil on canvas, 2012
Man has depicted the human figure ever since the crude figures of the Paleolithic era. Probably the most famous of these is now called the Venus of Willendorf. Back then, the idea of Venus as a goddess didn’t even exist—it was only much later that historians decided to name this buxom object Venus. Artists continued to use the power of the figure in painting and sculpture—with rather more prowess—as ways to make strong connections with the world they knew and the one they hoped existed beyond it.
There are few artists in Western New York as well-versed in art history, its connections with mythology, and its love of the human figure than Bruce Adams. With few exceptions, Adams’s work over the last three decades has had an intense focus on the intersection of art history, mythology, archeology, and human history. In his works, we see pagan goddesses (including Venus), Christian heroes, pop culture icons, and, sometimes, traditional portraits. The common thread holding most of this work together is Adams’s ongoing preoccupation with the human figure.
It’s not an unusual preoccupation to have, if you’re an artist—or even if you’re just a human being. We look for ourselves in almost everything we do and think about, even if we don’t admit it. Adams’s great gift as an artist and a writer is that he doesn’t mind admitting his obsessions and demonstrating exactly how they play out. In an artist’s statement for his current series, Myths and Lies, Adams says, “I’ve always had a soft spot for academic painting, its clichéd idealism, formulaic standards, use of mythology and allegory to justify the nude.” Is he saying that artists just like to paint nudes because it’s fun? Perhaps, but what he doesn’t say is that painting the figure is a challenge every artist should master and define. Adams has set himself this challenge many times over the years; it’s obvious—and hardly surprising—that he’s also getting better and better at it.
The paintings of Myths and Lies—which will appear at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University this month—are mysterious and enchanting. In some works, Adams allows faces and figures to emerge, glowing as if by candlelight, from their dim backgrounds. In others, the backdrops are bright, vaguely retro patterns or solid colors. Adams has never used color so well, nor has he ever juxtaposed contemporary life and mythology so seamlessly. Many of the poses clearly recall the poses and stances of the heroes of comic books and graphic novels—formats that have always harked back to mythological archetypes.
The realism in these carefully representational images is always strangely in doubt, and that may be Adams’s most impressive accomplishment. As he says, never trust the truth of the painted image. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Myths and Lies is on view at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University April 13 through June 29, with an opening reception Sunday, April 13, from 2 to 4 p.m. Call 286-8200 or visit castellaniartmuseum.org for more information.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree.