Art Review: Momento Mori
Adam Estes creates apocalyptic vision in three styles
Published: January 8, 2014
By Adam Estes
Through Jan. 11 at Metro Gallery
When T.S. Eliot first saw the paintings from the Lascaux caves in France, he said: “Art never really gets any better.” Eliot wasn’t necessarily saying that the cave paintings constituted the single greatest work of art, but that art is not the kind of thing where progress is possible. Rather, it is an enterprise where one must find—or create—one’s own ancestors. And those masters who painted the game they hoped to kill deep within a torchlit cave are certainly part of the lineage of Adam Estes, whose solo show Momento Mori is on display at Metro Gallery through Jan. 11. Inside the bar/gallery/music venue, it is also possible to trace Estes’ forbears through Egyptian hieroglyphics to William Blake, Picasso, Dubuffet, Basquiat, and the Future Primitive-era of Powell Peralta skateboards.
In many of the paintings, all of which are untitled, the violence of the subject matter is perfectly matched by the formal violence on the canvases, many of which are reclaimed from other artists, yard sales, or alleys, according to Sarah Werner, the gallery’s owner. In painting #1, one of the strongest in the series, a fragile and pinkish human form which seemingly has three arms and only one leg spews bright red blood from its stomach onto the glowing blue foreground. The figure’s face is scribbled out with black circular strokes; the arms are not anatomically correct but are nevertheless rendered with the kind of Picasso-ish expression that makes them seem more moving than real—especially the one that sprouts a cartoonishly demonic devil-dog face. Behind all of this, the background is as layered and distressed as a chunk of the Berlin Wall.
This painting well captures one of Estes’ several styles, which we might call the iconic. Another painting in this vein—#9—shows a Blakean figure kneeling with a beatific hand outstretched, a sort of sun-halo around his head, fire coming pacifically from his mouth and a hole in his gut. Here the background is even more furiously and fervently layered with scrawls, doodles, scratched-out words, and sundry symbols. Painting #19 is the apotheosis of this style and a departure from it. Featuring a two-headed Siamese humanoid zombie-like figure whose orange-pink skin glows against a swirling blue background, it is both simpler and, somehow, more complex than the others. And did I mention more terrifying? Still, as with #1 and #9 there is something deeply religious—if apocalyptically so—about these paintings that seems to search for meaning in a forest of mad symbols at the end of time.
Another group of generally smaller paintings might be called hieroglyphic. These feature rich black-and-white line drawings—reminiscent both of graffiti and Jean Cocteau’s superb illustrations—set against monochromatic or simply colored backgrounds. The figures are fantastic and fantastically detailed, as if Keith Haring had gone angular to illustrate Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play Ubu Roi. Lighter in content and depth, and smaller in both scale and ambition, these pieces seem like telegraphed versions of the larger paintings, capturing something of their essence while eliminating the turmoil.
Estes’ third mode could be called cartoonish. In # 7, for instance, a blue creature that seems like a cross between Grimace and the Schmoo has a mock-scared expression on its face as a demon head spits an arrow through its belly and an extraordinarily cute skinned dog with x-ed out eyes and exposed innards hangs from its tail. The adorability of this dog carcass says a lot about Estes’ cartoon work, which is as graphic and disturbed as the large-scale icon paintings, with lines as simple as the hieroglyphs creating the missing link between them.
Estes was already working in these three styles for his last show at Metro Gallery, in 2012, but looking back at the images from that show, it is clear how much his work in each of the three veins has developed, with the elements that were more obviously derivative of other artists being stripped away or combined in some surprising and more original ways in order to develop a deeper and more coherent visual language. Hanging on the front wall, there is another set of roughly playing card-sized laminated pieces that Estes makes and sells for $15. These images seem to combine the other three modes and may point to the direction in which Estes will go.
We think we know what the cave-painters at Lascaux wanted (to kill the animals or to thank them), but, of course, we are probably wrong, wrong about everything when we look back 30,000 years. But if someone were to find Estes’ paintings millennia from now, they might get a sense of some of the things we hope for and fear—even if it comes in what seems to be an almost-childish and already-post-apocalyptic package of nihilistic dread and gallows humor. Which is not, as the world looks right now, too far off target.
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