Derrick Adams Brings the Black Radical Tradition to the Living Room

In two New York gallery shows, the artist’s domestic sets and portraits of celebrities drive home questions of representation in the culture industry

The press release for ‘Interior Life’ at Luxembourg and Dayan’s New York outpost noted that the gallery occupies the ‘second smallest townhouse in Manhattan’, a fact that presumably marks a sense of arrival for both the artist, who has been practising for over 20 years, and the gallery, which has been operating in New York since 2009. The exhibition’s title is a nod to both the domestic spaces – living room, kitchen, den, bedroom – that Adams has outfitted in custom-patterned wallpaper, and the inner lives of the portraits that decorate these walls. Each portrait, from the series ‘Deconstruction Worker’ (2011–ongoing), is rendered in profile and consists of skin tones made from a patchwork of patterned paper, resulting in complex, shifting visages, full of elegance and import.

Derrick Adams, 'Interior Life', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York/London

These dignified faces gaze away from the viewer and toward the accoutrement of the bourgeois domicile, affixed to the walls of the gallery in two dimensions: stereos, flat-screen televisions, a modernist wooden sculpture. Placed throughout are signifiers of African and African-American culture. Here and there, totemic statues emblazoned with eyes cut from photographs of black celebrities stand guard. A shelf is weighted with exhibition catalogues of Wifredo Lam and Thelma Golden’s groundbreaking 1994–95 Whitney Museum exhibition ‘Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art’; the fridge is festooned with recipes for Southern cooking by the likes of Patti LaBelle and Bobby Seale. Adams signposts these material artifacts to indicate that the Black American experience, from which so much of pop culture is pilfered and produced, is also a rarely credited intellectual history. If these signifiers can feel shallow, or rather flattened, they nod to the process by which the complexity of black experience is commodified for consumption by the culture industry. 

Derrick Adams, Interior Life (Figure 3), 2019, acrylic paint, pencil and fabric on paper, 61 × 46 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York/London

Pop culture, and television in particular, has provided Adams much fodder for his work; references to the 1970s hit show What’s Happening!! appear in ‘Interior Life’ as in past paintings. To wit, Adams’ work has entered into the mainstream with appearances on ‘prestige’ television shows Empire (2015–ongoing) and Insecure (2016–ongoing), thereby completing a circuit of cultural consumption centered on the thorny politics of representation. Many of the debates regarding black representation in mainstream US culture take to task the long-standing limitations placed on creatives by the industry. A lack of representation is symptomatic of a lack of opportunity, so offering creative roles to artists, writers and others might help change these racist dynamics, by providing more complex, nuanced examples in mainstream media.

Derrick Adams, 'New Icons', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Mary Boone Gallery, New York

In ‘New Icons’ at Mary Boone, Adams considers this predicament by rendering, on large canvases with dark backgrounds, contemporary black figures represented by emojis. Previously only available in a sickly yellow, emojis were updated in 2015 to support the Fitzpatrick scale of skin tone – from alabaster to dark brown. Here, Adams’s unlabelled portraits, created using both a Computer Numeric Control machine and his own hand, represent the unlikenesses of Colin Kaepernick, Michael Sam, Sister Souljah and Mike Tyson. A recurring emoji is the ‘raised fist’, which Emojipedia explains ‘may be used as a celebratory gesture’ but is ‘sometimes used as a symbol of resistance or defiance’ – readings that are lost in these portraits.

Reducible complexity is the paradox at the heart of Adams’s work. Though progress requires the slogging efforts of those who have had to justify their position in an unfair and racist society, representation alone is a Pyrrhic victory. While histories of racial violence have defined the contours of the images available in our society, the goal must be to exceed the bounds of the picture plane and aim ever-forward for depth. 

Derrick Adams, 'New Icons' runs at Mary Boone Gallery, New York, until 27 April 2019 and 'Interior Life' is on view at Luxembourg & Dayan, New York, until 20 April 2019. 

Main image: Derrick Adams, 'Interior Life', 2019, exhibtion view. Courtesy: © Derrick Adams and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York and London

Tausif Noor is a contributing editor at Momus and writer based in New York.

Issue 203

First published in Issue 203

May 2019

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