99 Loop Gallery
30.09.2015 – 31.10.2015
Andrew Hart Adler’s exhibition ‘Emergence’, first and foremost had me sold at the mention of the artist’s association with renowned Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning, whom Adler once assisted. Born in New York and having lived in several countries across Europe and South America, Adler’s repertoire of multicultural experience was further added to when he moved to Cape Town and set up his studio in Woodstock, where he continues to operate today (Andrew Hart Adler, n.d). As seen in ‘Emergence’, this mobility translates into his work, where a palpable sense of restlessness and impermanence may be found amongst the washes of colour and blurs of movement.
The solo exhibition, comprising just over 30 works, presents to the viewer a specific range of subject matter which juxtaposes the natural with the man-made; more specifically, images of birds and people with snippets of cathedrals and architecture. Sometimes, admittedly, this proves difficult to understand in terms of a collective theme, however Adler’s use of a consistent bold, painterly technique aids in the exhibition’s overall cohesion and, as a style, is reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. The movement, pioneered by artists including de Kooning, Rothko and Pollock, took place between the 1940s-1950s and is characterized by its ability to render spontaneity and motion through gestural brushstrokes as well as its use of colour as an expressive tool, rather than descriptive or imitative (Anfam, 1990: 63). In other words, the idea was to express powerful content rather than illustrate it and, in doing so, convey a deeper, mysterious (yet universal) emotional quality (Anfam, 1990: 63). While this remains mostly true for Adler’s work as he makes use of expressive colour and line, his work differs by means of a blend of the abstract with the figurative, whereby photographs of subtle yet recognizable subject matter surface through the layers of mixed media.
A closer inspection of the work reveals the artist’s foundational use of inkjet printing on canvas or paper, over which he applies a mixture of oil, dry pigment, gel and silicon wax. While this appears to be quite a change in media compared to his predecessors, some Abstract Expressionists such as de Kooning, believed that photography and film had an inherent advantage to other media because of the two-dimensional quality that reduces pictorial planes and has the potential to distort spatial dimensions (Anfam, 1990: 131). In addition, de Kooning is said to have achieved the illusion of movement in his work by means of “a blurred facture akin to how the camera ‘freezes’ movement, and incessant ambiguities.” (Anfam, 1990: 134) While this shows a connection between Abstract Expressionism and photography, the underlying photographs in Adler’s work don’t make apparent this sort of technical agenda.
The above-mentioned relationship between ambiguity and photography is also important, as Abstract Expressionism was in many ways influenced by Jungian theory regarding mythology, which involves the notion that myth expresses the ‘collective unconscious’- in other words a universal cognizance intrinsic to every human being (Anfam, 1990: 81). According to Jung, myth and art hail from the same depths as both are able to function as mediators via which the collective unconscious may become known (Anfam, 1990: 82). Around the same time that Abstract Expressionism began to manifest in art, other fields such as dance (Martha Graham’s Caves of the Heart, 1946 and Errands Into the Maze, 1947) and literature (T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses) were also influenced by mythology theory, interrogating how myths are able to provide a narrative of the present with a universal dimension (Anfam, 1990: 80).
This notion towards universality and the ability to transcend physical form by accessing our sort of innate human essence is perhaps what Adler’s work seems to allude to, whereby references are made to the afore-mentioned practices of dancing and art, as well as religion and nature, relating to a sort of spirituality that can supersede human form. Many of Adler’s works focus on birds, some of them from his Aviary series (2015), while others address spirituality more overtly with titles such as Angel (2015), Passing to the Other Side (2015) and Rising Through the Ether (2015). Functioning in a similar way are the works referencing places of worship, which include the Vatican series (2015) as well as the Cathedral of Forgotten Dreams series (2014-2015), which also seem relevant to Jung’s belief that, along with myths and art, dreams function as another type of mediator for the collective unconscious (Anfam, 1990: 82). While ideological connections may be alluded to through the works’ titles and uncovered with further research, it is possible that the execution of the work doesn’t sufficiently convey these to the viewer. Unlike Abstract Expressionism, where the gallery-visitor can expect to feel an inner resonance upon confrontation with the artwork, I feel that ‘Emergence’ does not provide this sort of instinctual connection and rather, left me to find my own resolution outside of the gallery walls. In this way, Adler’s work becomes too cerebral for it to function as Abstract Expressionism, appealing to rationality rather than universal emotion.
Another way in which the Jungian theory regarding mythology may be hinted at in Adler’s work is through its art historical framework, approached through both subject matter (dancers reminiscent of Degas’ ballerinas, for example) and the works’ titles which function as tributes or “odes” to various artists, including de Kooning, Degas, Rothko, Stills, Tàpies and Rauschenberg. Adler suggests that revisiting the work of his predecessors allows him “to penetrate to the heart of the mystery and exhume under various guises the same sublime form that we seek in all artistic production.” (Andrew Hart Adler, n.d.) In other words, much like dance, religion and nature, art is believed to possess an innate transcendental quality and, by referencing iconic works, Adler attempts to access this sublimity in order for “his creations to join to all those works that have incarnated the universal nature of human emotions.” (Andrew Hart Adler, n.d.) While the conceptual angle of Adler’s work appears well-planned, as it is explicitly advertised to his audience, there ignites a recognition that perhaps, as a viewer, it is easy to be too convinced too quickly. Despite the initial allure of all the famous references and the positioning of Adler’s work (figuratively and sometimes literally) alongside some of Art History’s greatest artists, one has to question the extent to which his work lives up to the standards it sets for itself through these associations. It begins to feel as though a lot of effort has been put into identifying these links between epochs, styles and subject matter but without the supplementation of external text, the work does not succeed in making these connections manifest. It seems that there is a heavy, mutual reliance between the abstraction and figuration with neither being strong enough to support the other and the result of this is that the Abstract Expressionism framework collapses and, amongst all of the odes, I find it difficult to distinguish Adler’s voice.
Adler, A.H. 2015. Emergence Exhibition. Cape Town: 99 Loop Gallery.
Adler, A. H. n.d. Andrew Hart Adler. Available at: <http://www.adlerart.com/> [Accessed on 20/10/2015]
Anfam, D. 1990. Abstract Expressionism. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc.