Derrick Adams: Network
California African American Museum, Los Angeles
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Through June 11th
Derrick Adams makes television. Well okay, he makes bright, bold, chromatically saturated and pattern-rich mixed media collage, sculpture, video, interdisciplinary installation, and performance art about television. But the way Adams does it, it’s kind of the same thing. His ultimate purpose is to deconstruct and examine the way Americans both consume and create culture via TV viewership — especially during the pre-internet era of the artist’s youth, when entertainment was beamed out centrally, absorbed in living rooms as a one-way information stream, interrupted only by commercials, pushing pre-packaged top-down cultural and political messaging. But before he gets to that part, Adams first lures viewers in by borrowing eye-catching visual strategies from Pop Art and from television itself. It’s as delicious and high-calorie as candy, but at its core are serious and profound issues speaking directly to real life existence in all its range of joy, struggle, resistance, escapism, consumerism, humor, injustice, and truth. But first, you grab the eyeball.
Adams constructs compositions using an early-Modern aesthetic of quilt-like planarity in which schematic faces and simple images might exist in a prismatic flatness against rather than above bright backgrounds in variations derived from the once-familiar late night color-bar off-air screen. And to make absolutely certain that the TV reference (and context, and content, and metaphor) is made clear, he borrows a frame-within-a-frame device from art history and places all of his imagery inside the constructed motif of an old-school TV set. The classic fake wood panel laminate, the slightly oblong shape of the central plane, the rabbit-ear antennae, the clunky silver tuning knobs… he even adds the occasional vintage TV Guide cover. Whether entirely abstract or figurative to greater and lesser degrees, there is still a narrative, a storyline so to speak, in each individual work.
Images of “classic” African-American television shows like “Sanford and Son” and/or notable casting of African-Americans on iconic franchises like “Star Trek,” as well as depictions (not really portraits per se) of celebrity figures like Oprah Winfrey, Diahann Carroll, and golden boy turned lightning rod O.J. Simpson, raising questions about race, class, and gender as expressed in African-American terms and in popular culture writ large. But all the while these large-scale works are still busy being these gorgeous and engaging abstractions. Even in those works with little or no faces, the eclectic choices of fabrics and industrial textiles are also reminiscent of the famously colorful traditional African textiles historically and per the modern trend for picture and symbol-based patterns, so that even without specific images in the overall composition, these materials, like the wood laminate, carries within it its own meaning.
But being a child not only of history and art history but of television himself, Adams takes the whole idiom into the meta-realm, by using those works as the backdrop/framing for a series of hilarious cable-access style performances — sometimes enacted live such as at the exhibition opening night, but most often presented as videos — of mock programs and advertisements. It’s pretty hilarious when it’s a send-up of hard-sell pitches for products like “more for less” or “over the top.” The look and feel and sense of place could not be less “realistic” in terms of actually resembling the TV-watching experience, and yet the viewer finds themselves just as transfixed and for similar reasons. In an especially witty series, Adams presents a small number of 3-D sculptures in which the armature of a TV holds the abstracted bust of person, very much like a game one might have played as a child, and very much like colorful Cubist and Futurist sculptures from the last turn-of-the-century. There is also a reference to what has long been an overall lack of African-American characters on network television, and what it might mean to a) put them there, and b) allow African-American audiences to see themselves, and furthermore, to see themselves portrayed with actual diversity and authenticity beyond stereotype. At that point, the artist has delivered his message clearly and emphatically, and you have understood that whole gamut of entertainment and advertising is a carnival show of biases and echo-chamber tropes motivated by profit, punctuated with seismic paradigm shifts — one which is now, finally, demonstrably available to be hacked by anyone.