Seth Adelsberger’s new paintings mine forgotten corners of art history and explore the sterility of the contemporary world
Published: December 18, 2013
The studio that Seth Adelsberger shares with erstwhile CP contributor Alex Ebstein in the Nudashank gallery space is remarkably clean. The white walls and spotless floors underline the sense of order. Houseplants liven up corners by the wall of windows, and piles of organized clutter fill up tables. Stacks of wooden frames and braces for what will become panels lean against the walls; gallons of gesso and buckets of paint are tucked under sawhorse table legs.
Surface Treatment, on view until Jan. 10 at Springsteen Gallery, features Adelsberger’s recent paintings, new explorations of abstraction, with references to art history, technology, and media saturation. The series of what he calls Submersion paintings involve several layers of a single color in acrylic, often magenta or turquoise. Adelsberger manipulates and pushes around a thick layer of gesso, and once it cures, he puts a final, watered-down wash of that same color over the whole thing.
Adelsberger says his studio practice hasn’t been at the front of his mind since he and Ebstein started Nudashank almost five years ago, but his experiences curating and absorbing so much art have affected his way of working.
“When we were doing Nudashank, there wasn’t a studio where things could be left set up,” he says. “So I think that experience over time led to the desire to create a process that can happen in very small windows.”
After the BMA offered him a solo show for next summer and Nudashank decided to slow down its programming, Adelsberger started work on what quickly led to the Submersion paintings. “Previously, my work focused on a single painting, and I worked on it for a long time, tried to put everything into that painting—very maximal and busy,” he says. One of the transitional pieces that led to his current painting process utilized similar monochrome acrylic layers, a thick layer of gesso, and a final wash, but the piece lacked the order and finesse of the most recent paintings. He also experimented with surfaces, taking the paintings off the stretcher so that, when they were hung up, they were essentially just slabs of colored plastic on the wall, emulating the experience of looking at an image online, which is how most art is experienced and shared these days. From there, he switched to a lower-quality, student-grade gesso, which was “more soupy,” he says, and started on some smaller panels, thinking they would just be underpaintings. After applying the final wash, he noticed how the watered-down paint over the gesso layer created a luminosity, which, he says, “in some ways relates to the way old master paintings were created and built up in layers and glazes to create that glowing, almost religious quality.”
The new paintings are created in batches of three to six, and since they are done in acrylic paint and gesso, they require speedy decision-making before everything gets too dry to work with. “This is such a compressed window of time in which the form is created. It’s almost kind of a frozen moment,” he says. “It’s all this preparation in building a support on this craft-based stuff, and then, in 20 minutes or less, this form is created.” He says that some people look at these paintings and assume there was a photographic process involved, and he describes his decision-making as a “snapshot of a gestural moment.”
He says that this gestural moment springs from some kind of innate response, pushing the gesso around and creating compositions with marks that feel natural to him. “I feel like I could be working from some kind of primal template, or maybe it’s just some kind of compositional balance that I feel comfortable with,” he says, adding that “there is something about muscle memory” that causes certain similarities to keep popping up in the paintings.
Apart from the technical aspect of the paintings, Adelsberger goes into how sterile and cold and isolated our world often feels. He talks about making the installation at Springsteen “site-specific in the way that it’s so bright and so sterile [in the gallery], and just thinking about that idea: the sterility, science, contemporary society, [where] everything is becoming more and more sterile and corporate.”
That sterility hearkens back to how much of what we culturally consume comes to us through social media, conveyed through screens, rather than experienced in person—from looking at images to communicating with other people. When he first started making these paintings and photographing them, he was pleased with how they looked as images. “But when I started getting feedback and people started seeing them in person, they were like, ‘Oh, these are so much better,’ like actually getting to see the weave of the canvas and how the paint was put on. In that way, I think, having an actual show is still important because the feedback and responses are more rewarding than online.”
But his work is not purely technical, and it’s not entirely a meditation on our screen-based lives: Adelsberger is also interested in how his work contributes to the larger scope of art history. “It’s almost impossible to be original, that kind of thing is just creating a larger collective dialogue. You can only hope to influence that dialogue or add to it a little bit,” he says. He is eager to learn about artists who were in between movements, not exactly falling into one specific category such as Abstract Expressionism or Color Field painting. “It’s become my focus to go back and rearrange things or move back in history that way,” he says. “You see it in music and everything, pulling things out of the dustbins of history, the stuff that’s been overlooked or hasn’t had much time to shine.”
This sense of exploration keeps the future open-ended. “Whatever comes next, I want to keep making the paintings and see where they go as far as complex color relationships, but I do want to keep my practice open-ended,” he says, “keep exploring the digital stuff, printing, and see how they can be combined—keep that door open.”
Seth Adelsberger’s Surface Treatment is on view at Springsteen Gallery through Jan. 10. For more information, please visit springsteengallery.com. To see a gallery of Adelsberger’s work visit citypaper.com/adelsberger
> Email Rebekah Kirkman