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Derrick Adams

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Black American artists often have portrayed racial injustice through images of conflict and suffering. Derrick Adams, a highly acclaimed mid-career New York artist, whose work is the subject of an elegant and seductive exhibition on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, has taken a different path.

The 52-year-old multidisciplinary artist portrays Black life through images of ravishing beauty that are steeped in his deep knowledge of art history and a commitment to highly polished visual thinking and object-making.

Adams’s work certainly calls attention to inequality and cultural blindness in a majority white society, but it does so subtly, in ways that feel celebratory and affirmative rather than angry and accusatory. Joy is a word often associated with his work.

All of those qualities are on copious display in “LOOKS,’’ a deeply satisfying exhibition on view through Sunday, May 29 in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s East Wing photography gallery.

Co-curated by the museum’s curator of photography, Barbara Tannenbaum, and by Ellen Rudolph, curator and senior director of the Cleveland Clinic’s art program, the show focuses on nine, large-scale canvases in which Adams interprets diverse styles of wigs glimpsed on mannikin heads displayed in store windows in the Brooklyn, New York neighborhood where he lives.

The wigs portrayed in the paintings include a saucy-looking cropped style in black-and-white, a flamboyant rainbow, a look with cascading tresses that fall in shocking pink cascade, and a softer number with flowing curves in subtle earth tones.

The paintings and their evolution have a great personal backstory, and they manifest a powerful understanding of what it takes physically to create a well-made work of art.

They also constitute a frank celebration of popular notions of Black beauty and style. As such, they elevate a subject that some might consider déclassé. But they also make the point that popular fashions pioneered among minority groups have had a tendency to go mainstream in a market hungry for new styles, or “LOOKS,’’ as the show’s title puts it.

Regardless of how they are interpreted, Adams’s paintings are highly disciplined pictorial performances. They achieve an almost hieratic authority and a commanding presence that compels attention.

Masterful process

Why are they in the photography gallery? Because Adams painted the wig styles and geometrically-abstracted facial features in acrylic paint on top of large-scale photographic printouts of the mannikin heads made directly on the canvas as a first step. The painted areas layered over and around the photos then create unified hybrids that obscure their roots, just as wigs do.

Portrayed by Adams through flat areas of color and pattern, the wigs are combined with the crisp, ehard-edged areas of color that describe the facial features of the mannikin heads. Lips and nostrils become circles; cheeks, brows, and chins become faceted polygons.

The underlying photographs are never entirely hidden. At times, portions of them around the nostrils or chins of the mannikin heads peek through surrounding layers of paint, creating a subtle, hide-and-seek surface that is layered and bold but also visually tight and flat — not an easy effect to pull off.

One delightful detail is that Adams describes the eyelashes on the heads by painting flat areas of color around the underlying eyelashes in the photos. The unpainted, eyelash-shaped silhouettes are defined by areas of flat color as if they were cut with scissors out of a sheet of paper.

The interactions between the layers in Adams’s paintings attract and hold attention while resisting attempts to decipher how they’re made.

The net result is a high-impact sense of wholeness, emphasized by the soft sheen of an acrylic matte medium that Adams brushed across the surface of the paintings, creating loose, shimmering marks that belie the tight, hard-edged flatness of layers of paint just below this outer surface.

In form and style, the Adams paintings embody a sophisticated reinterpretation of influences from classic modern and contemporary art that range from the African-inflected Cubism of Pablo Picasso to the hard-edged abstractions of Color Field painter Ellsworth Kelly, and the austere geometric minimalism of works by Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.

In the bio on his website, Adams also claims influences from Henri Matisse, and from Romare Bearden, the Black American artist who became a master of collage, the cut-and-paste technique Adams’s paintings often simulate through areas of paint that act like cut paper.

Finding a topic

An assistant professor at the Brooklyn College of Art said in an interview that he brought his sensibilities to bear on wigs and wig culture gradually, without intending initially to do so. He was just giving rein to his curiosity.

While habitually walking to and from a subway stop on Fulton Street, Adams said he routinely passed numerous wig shops. Like a 19th-century Parisian flaneur intrigued by the urban scene around him, he gradually developed an interest.

He found himself photographing the window displays without any particular artistic goal in mind. Then he went inside some of the shops to learn more about their various styles from the women responsible for designing and creating them.

Intrigued, he eventually started making paintings based on the wigs and mannikin heads, focusing first on smaller studies on paper before working up to the larger-scale images on view at the museum.

Adams said his approach to art-making is rooted in early experiences growing up in Baltimore, where his stepfather was a musician and other relatives who were artists or who collected African textiles and took him to see exhibitions in small, neighborhood galleries.

Adams said he rarely visited the Walters Art Gallery or the Baltimore Museum of Art — the big, formal, white-dominated institutions he toured on occasional school trips. Instead, through personal and family connections, he developed an understanding of African-American art history and artists including Elizabeth Catlett and Jacob Lawrence.

His views broadened at Pratt Institute in New York, where he earned a bachelor-of-fine-arts in 1996, followed by a master-of-fine-arts at Columbia University in 2003.

Since then, he’s developed numerous bodies of work, often dealing with images of Black leisure and enjoyment. Those explorations include a body of work inspired by The Green Book; a travel guide created in 1936 by postal worker Victor Hugo Green to advise Black travelers how to navigate Jim Crow America safely.

Adams devoted another series to the topic of “Floaters,’’ images of Black men and women relaxing in swimming pools on brightly-colored inflatables.

The pool paintings function on one level as gorgeous images of pleasure that resonate with classic modernist images of an imagined Golden Age, including Matisse’s late-in-life paper cut-out images of nude bathers.

On another level, “Floaters” portrays Black people as they claim their right to enjoyment in a country where public swimming pools have often been sites of vicious racial conflict.

Wigs as self-expression

Adams, who will discuss his work at the art museum on April 9, said he views his wig paintings as responses to notions of style and self-expression among working-class women who proclaim flamboyant possession of their bodies, and freedom to declare diverse identities by changing their “looks.”

“When you’re working class, you really you just have your body for the most part,’’ he said. “Your body is your canvas. You might not own your property; you might not own your car, but you own your body.’’

“So you can adorn it,’’ he went on to say. “You might do piercing, you might do all these different things because it’s a statement: ‘This is my body, I can do what I want with it. This is what I’m deciding to do: Wear a blue wig or an orange wig or a purple rainbow wig down the street.’ It’s an attention grabber.”

That last comment applies equally to Adams’s paintings. Filtered through his sensibility and artistic process, they grab and hold attention while raising awareness of Black fashion and visual culture in a way that feels inviting and yes, joyful.

All that and more in his work makes it easy to react with a single word: Bravo.

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