"Everything in here is made out of stuff that was mine.” Here is a tiny studio apartment — literally both — on the edge of Beverly Hills; everything refers to the assortment of postindustrial patchwork couture hanging from the ceiling, as well as some hefty minimalist plaster lumps on the floor; stuff includes the meticulously deconstructed remains of just about any clutter typical of contemporary urban life — superfluous clothing, towels, grocery bags, exercise mats, magazines, maps, tax documents and high school yearbooks. The speaker is conceptual artist China Adams, who, after more than a decade with Ace Gallery, has chosen to unveil her spring line of detritus wear at Steve Turner Contemporary, a few blocks west on Wilshire.
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Alpine Meadow (2008)
“I was noticing that I was having a lot of crap built up that I wanted to get rid of,” Adams notes, “so I decided I was going to try to make clothes out of those things. But it’s a little bit more involved than that.” No shit. In addition to the outrageous array of mutant funk fashion, each garment is accompanied by a framed, notarized letter recounting the circumstances of the work’s genesis, alongside a holiday-snapshot-style image of Adams modeling the outfit; the snapshots are then digitally inserted into a stock landscape photo. Landscapes can be anywhere, from the Alps to an equatorial rice paddy. These low-income virtual-dream vacations — or Flights of Fancy, as her exhibition title classifies them — are the actual artworks; the clothes are just evidence left behind.
“It started with this idea that I had when I was in debt from all this health stuff [a bout with anemia], and just always scrounging for money, and never getting out of this small space. And then this thought I’ve always had about advertising: how so much of what people buy is an idea about what is going to happen when, like, ‘If I get the right gown and if I ever go to Cancun, this’ll look fabulous!’ And I wondered, could I create this whole thing all from right here? I do the pictures here, do the whole composites here, I print it here, the clothes are all made here. So it’s like this complete imagined exotic journey that all takes place in my apartment.”
This ad absurdum DIY philosophy will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Adams’ oeuvre. At 30-something, she boasts an unusually long string of solo exhibits — due to the fact that her first was at age 23, while she was still attending UCLA as an undergraduate. Her pivotal work was a classic in what might be called stripped-down performative design — the kind of event that derives a wealth of conceptual significance and emotional impact from a slight shift of the spatial relationship between 2- or 3-D objects. (Think Chris Burden’s arm and a copper-jacket .22 long-rifle bullet or Jeffrey Vallance’s relocation of Blinky the Friendly Hen from supermarket display to pet cemetery.)
In Adams’ Official Cannibal Status (1993), the object in question was a tiny chunk of human flesh donated by a fellow student, which Adams — a vegetarian since childhood — displaced into her digestive tract in front of witnesses, then documented with a framed, notarized affidavit, triggering one of our species’ deepest taboos with a clinical and bureaucratic dispassion bridling with Kafkaesque irony. The elegant formal economy of Adams’ gesture notwithstanding, it was the work’s unrepentant theatricality, outrageous humor and narrative conceit that made it remarkable in the dry context of conceptualist-art practice. It doesn’t get much juicier than raw meat.
Almost any artwork created since the ’60s at least pays lip service to the “nonretinal” tradition of Duchamp, and many of the most critically and curatorially touted masters of that era — just consider the recent L.A. museum shows devoted to Allan Kaprow, Lawrence Weiner, Michael Asher and Dan Flavin — run to the anorexic end of the eye-candy scale. Much of the contemporary art that renounces materiality doesn’t actually involve a lot of sacrifice, and is proportionately meaningless — if you’re tone-deaf, it’s easy to abandon melody. At its most sterile, art amounts to little more than illustrated attempts to rationalize our culture’s pathological alienation from the body and senses, and seldom resonates beyond the semantic confines of academia’s unlubricated semiotic clusterfuck. Op cit creek without a paddle.
In contrast, Adams is clearly a gifted visual artist, a role that necessitates considerable sensory engagement with the world, as well as a substantial investment in the idea of objects as repositories of meaning. Now that’s a monkey worth shaking off your back. The struggle with materialism, which led to Adams’ sacrificial (but only quasi-transubstantiational) cannibal orgy, continues to be evident in her subsequent work: selling deeds to the bones in her body; disposing of more than three-quarters of her possessions in 1995’s The Official Stitch and Hide Procedure; pulping a full year’s worth of mail into “drawings”; even abandoning her personality to participate in the Ms. American Woman beauty pageant; or employment as a phone-sex operator.
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Secondary artifacts or not, the Flights of Fancy wardrobe is extravagantly visual and conceptually quirky, approximating a postapocalyptic cargo cult emulating the wardrobe found in a faux-hippie ’70s Broadway musical (get Kevin Costner on the phone!). The costumes’ sheer festivity may seem out of keeping with the austerity of their underlying conceptual formulae, but it is consistent with Adams’ earlier work: The bone deeds came with backlit X-rays; the sex calls were translated into small and wonky soft geometric sculptures sewn from raw canvas and dental floss; her somewhat self-parodying Blood Consumption (1999) portrayed each of the vampire-artist’s donors with 5-foot-high photographic studio portraits. The ambivalent and awkward incorporation of decoration, craft, self-expression and similar compromising impurities has been a consistent hook throughout Adams’ career.
Hooks are catchy but also hurty. As sensually gratifying as her works’ visual elements may be, Adams sees them as embodiments of the contingencies of their creation: “I really like the idea of making something that leaves nothing behind — almost like a modern dancer or a chef or musician. But at some point, every time I go into a project with that environmental-recycling idea, I reach the limitations of what I can do just using recycling, and I find myself using just as much new stuff. You realize pretty quickly that you’re as addicted to petroleum products as the next guy. It also makes you realize why corporations have such a hard time making significant changes.”
The political implications of Adams’ work — issues of class, gender and globalization, as well as broader anthropological concerns with taboos, stigma, consensus and authoritarianism, and an unavoidable critique of the art world’s über-materialism — seem to arise incidentally, alongside the humor and aesthetics, from the artist’s stubborn willingness to try to make do with less. If it were actually possible to erase your carbon footprint or dematerialize the art object, China Adams would be out of work. But instead of giving up in despair or blithely proclaiming, “Mission accomplished,” she continues to wrangle her poetic performative ethics into imperfect lumps of physical reality — the stuff that dreams are made of.
CHINA ADAMS: FLIGHTS OF FANCY | Steve Turner Contemporary | 6026 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | May 31-June 28, 2008 | Opening reception Sat., May 31, 6-9 p.m. | (323) 931-3721 or www.steveturnercontemporary.com