Adam Henry: God Speed Speed Demon
On ViewCandice Madey
February 26 – April 10, 2021
Whether working with bursts, mists and sprays, glossy finishes, expanses, or intense nodes of pure color, Adam Henry is visually indulgent in the minimal style of an ASMR recording, distilling painting down to the most basic stimuli that evoke a pleasurable response. His current show at Candice Madey, God Speed Speed Demon, is a discourse on such stimuli: what it means to both make them and respond to them. The paintings seem to talk to each other across the gallery, asking the same question, “Are you a painting that is simply about being a painting, or are you a painting that comments critically on that condition?” It’s a rare situation in which a painter chooses to address both sides.
The small canvas Untitled (Signal) (2021) schematically depicts two light bulbs pulsing energy in contrasting red and blue ripples, while a more complete spectrum of colors unites them in a single band across the middle. This piece contrasts with the works Untitled (Origin) (2021) and Untitled (Spectre) (2021), which instead present diaphanous vibrant color-forms disassociated from any source. In all three works, however, Henry absents himself from the process of creation, beyond functioning as a sort of omnipresent wit: he carefully erases all but the most subtle traces of his own artistic intervention. The choice of colors, the directionality of the spray, the intensity of the penumbras of color—these are all the artist, but Henry resists showing up his fingerprints. This results in the most surreal aspect of the show: the parity between the two sides of Henry’s practice: the “critical” or schematic paintings versus the actual statements. Or to put it another way, certain of the paintings are explicitly about creating a painting or work of art, laying bare the operation of creating light or an image. Meanwhile, other works in the show exemplify or demonstrate those precepts. The rhythm of directive and then execution flows back and forth, almost as if the paintings could have made each other. The artist seems to be taking dictation from his own work in an endless hermetic cycle.
While this is a show obsessively about painting, the dynamic of God Speed Speed Demon is reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’s circular logic, in particular his 1968 work Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles. That installation looms in the background at God Speed Speed Demon. The act of locating an object and then bringing it into the very structure of interpretation that allows us to designate something as a work of art unleashes a complete and preformed method of thinking. For Broodthaers, it’s the hierarchy of the gallery, museum, and academy that must be interrogated, but Henry instead focuses on more visceral categories that inform our ability to apprehend an object as an image: smoothness, gloss, matte, intensity of color, purity of hue and tint. Henry’s wit lies in the puns about light that he inserts into his canvases—and they are literally canvases, as the three-dimensionality of the object and its place on the wall are considerations that the artist refuses to ignore.
Untitled (Spectre) addresses a spectrum of such perceptual issues simultaneously. A field of blue spray slowly coalesces against an off-white background, eventually approaching opacity: this is a simple exercise in registering the point at which our vision perceives change. This field looms above a solid black band at the bottom of the canvas—is this pure abstraction or a starry night of sorts? Finally, a rectangle of four stripes in solid yellow, red, blue, and purple emerges from or sits on the black band. On the one hand it’s clearly a photographer’s color card, but painted on the canvas surface it inevitably inveigles itself into the picture and thus our interpretation of it. Henry toys with our close-held misinterpretations of color: “What color is a shadow and what are we actually seeing? How does it differ from what we think we see? What happens when the artist fabricates a shadow by placing a different color on the inside edge of a canvas?” This takes place in Untitled (SdLoSg) (2021), where a largely white canvas is inscribed along its left edge with a series of bands of color which continue even onto the narrow side of the canvas, challenging the primacy of the picture plane. By deconstructing the fundamental building blocks of the image, Henry questions what we actually see when we look—as poignant a statement as Broodthaers’s found-object museums.
Henry chooses to keep the messaging simple, however, as only one painting has text—Untitled (Becoming) (2021), which fatalistically states, “a painting becoming a photograph.” The artist instead relies heavily on simple descriptive pictographs, like the light bulbs, or basic geometric forms, which, as in Untitled (Spectre), often stand in for color charts. Some artists like Peter Davies and Mark Lombardi are obsessed with a disembodied textual narrative which seeks universal answers, but Henry chooses to boil his investigation of perception down into a few short visual cues—he recalls the work of On Kawara, or Ed Ruscha, or even Tracey Emin’s romantic text works. Henry is a master of letting go and doing just enough. The message is simple: light bulbs, flashlights, color, and light are inexorably intertwined; light is inspiration. It all flows, and the beauty is in leaving it there and letting the viewer figure it out. Sometimes, though, Henry’s images are almost too little: Untitled (Speed of Light) (2021) is a black and white hand holding a luminous flashlight. While in the context of God Speed Speed Demon the painting makes perfect sense, you can easily imagine it losing potency all on its own. But this is not the case for the majority of the works included here. Many artists fall victim to the old adage “be the change you want to see” without acknowledging that there needs to be some self-reflection in the work as well. Everything can’t always be radical transformation, there also needs to be someone there taking notes.