Ron Adams: Master Printmaker
Through March 19 at Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery
24th Avenue S. and West End Avenue
For information, call 322-0605
It’s interesting how many different influences help turn a budding artist toward a career, or at least help reduce the number of distractions littering the way. Unpredictable factors include family background, health, economics, and the mysterious urges of personality. For example, Ron Adams remembers that his dislike of winter was one of the reasons he was attracted to art at an early age. ”I was born in Michigan and lived there as a very young kid. And I never did get much into ice skating and that sort of thing. I’d much rather stay close to the heater, doing a little drawing or something like that.“
Now in his mid-60s, Adams is the subject of the current exhibition at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, ”Ron Adams: Master Printmaker.“ Organized by guest curator James Rutherford, the show includes 29 works of art: 14 prints by Adams, one of his paintings, and 14 works he printed by other artists.
”I actually got into the arts field as a kid, mimicking my father,“ Adams explains. ”He wasn’t a trained artist at all, but he was always pretty handy with his hands, did a lot of drawing, sometimes picked up extra work as a sign painter and that sort of thing. I think I primarily started out by just copying things out of the newspaper, the comic strips, whatever.“
Adams’ parents knew he wanted to become an artist. Not surprisingly, they assumed he couldn’t make a living at it, so they encouraged him to find a practical career. In his late teens, Adams moved to California and got a night job in a post office, where a coworker happened to be studying technical illustration. Adams enrolled to do the same, and soon he was hired to do technical illustration for Hughes Aircraft. In time, he enrolled in an art school and studied painting, sculpture, and printmaking. Having long since achieved the status of master printer, he has worked in Los Angeles, at Gemini G.E.L.; in San Francisco, at Editions Press; and more recently in Santa Fe, N.M., as owner and director of his own press, Hand Graphics. Although he began exhibiting in 1966, he retired only a few years ago to devote himself to his own work.
Adams’ technical background is apparent in his workin its expertise, precision, and attention to detail. While well-composed and richly textured, these prints rely upon drawing skills. At the same time, the artist’s decades of printmaking have taught him the virtues and limitations of etching, lithography, and other media. This knowledge lends each work a perfection of technique that makes its medium seem the inevitable choice for the subject. The shading of the lithographs is as nicely done as the detailed etchings.
Yet for all the skill and detail in Adams’ work, there is a disquieting surreal aspect as well. Adams is constantly aware of the muscles and tendons underlying the surface of the body. This knowledge, combined with his stylized treatment of shadows and surface irregularities, creates a unique view of the human form. Most of his figures are clothed, but their shoulder bones show through their jackets and their calves bulge inside their pants legs. These details give even his most static figures a kind of vigor reminiscent of Michelangelo’s robust sibyls.
Consider the beautiful print ”Neptune Washington,“ one of three works in the show that appear in two different versions. A barefoot man in striped overalls stands on a flat-bottom boat, which he is poling down a river. He thoughtfully gazes ahead and upward, ignoring the rain that creates splendid ripples on the surface of the river. At his feet is an exquisite Japanese vignette: a bucketful of catfish and other catches, a bait can, and an unexplained frog. ”One of my main objectives,“ Adams says, ”is to bring life, character, and personality to an inanimate surface that still maintains its own presence among animate objects.“
But inevitably the animate figures dominate the scene. In art as in life, our eyes seek our own kind. At first glance, the everyday paraphernalia in ”Neptune Washington“ lead the eye to expect a more ”realistic,“ less stylized work. Yet the figure is anything but merely representational. The corded veins in his hands, the shockingly superimposed rib cage, the elegant shin flaring into gigantic feetall these details unite into a grandeur that also conveys a disturbing sense of our vulnerable, mortal bodies.
As befits an artist and artisan who was first inspired by his father’s handiness, Adams is preoccupied with the human hand. Famously difficult to draw, the hand as a subject doesn’t frighten Ron Adams. Not only does he emphasize the big, burly hands of his figures; sometimes he even draws them foreshortened. The hands of the fisherman in ”Neptune Washington,“ grasping the pole with which he navigates downstream, are fine enough to stand alone, disembodied like Dürer’s and Rembrandt’s sketches of hands.
Another subject runs through several of the prints: birds. In the engraving ”Endangered Species II,“ a man holds a shovel upright in the American Gothic pose. Meanwhile, a crow, holding a thorny rose in its beak, unfolds its talons as it prepares to land on his head. In ”Aunt Hattie,“ the woman’s graceful neck and bunned hair are offset by the dark bird that stands on her shoulder. It appears gentler than the bird in ”Endangered Species II,“ but for all its dove-like shape, it has the fierce beak of a crow. A larger, more impressive etching portrays a woman crawling across an Oriental rug while an elegantly drawn rooster stands on her shoulder, crowing.
This last work exhibits Adams’ most disturbing distortions of the human form. He has orchestrated dramatic tension by composing the scene around sharp anglesthe exposed triangle of the rug, the triangle of wooden boards illuminated by a light, the angled lines of the wallpaper. The scene is as elegantly drawn as anything in the show. However, into this sophisticated scene Adams places the jarring image of a woman who seems half grace and half disintegration. Her cadaverous shin and calf are quite beautiful, but they link a bloated thigh and a swollen foot. Her abdomen is a mass of globes, and her typically Adamsian rib cage shows.
”My concern,“ Adams says, ”is with capturing emotion and expression, rather than trying to obtain realistic representation.“ Most of the time, as these few examples demonstrate, he manages to do both.
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