Studio Visit: Adam Simon

by A.L. McMichael

Adam Simon in his Bushwick studio on a Sunday afternoon. The large panel painting on the wall is titled, Garden.

Sunday, 16 October 2011: Bushwick, Brooklyn

Adam Simon’s paintings are like towns, each work a microcosm with its own energy and vibe, an almost living amalgamation of figures and shapes, generic and repetitive at a glance, but often imbued with unique meaning upon closer inspection.

The story of his technique furthers this argument, harkening back to the days before internet, when he worked in editorial production and had down time between magazine issues. During this time he had access to stock photo catalogs—the once-ubiquitous volumes that graced the desks of designers before online photo archives were available—offering hundreds of already-shot photos for any occasion, such as carefully-coiffed models enacting a decade of cheerful, harmonious corporate gatherings during which the men are graciously heroic and the women wear pantyhose. Simon uses such figures as a starting point, tracing their outlines onto mylar and cutting stencils from the poses. He then rolls paint over the stencils onto panels, creating layers of figures. After the paint dries, he uses an electric sander to alter the finish, adding texture and subtracting layers of paint figures, letting some fade away while others emerge.

Gone are the pleasant expressions of the stock figures, the dated business casual clothing, the ethnicities of the models. Turning color photographs into contours achieves a subtle but crucial difference in legibility between these and more traditional silhouettes, such as Victorian busts, that are designed to be read as line art. In Simon’s work movements and gestures are muddled. In place of the models are generic figures that require interpretation, loaded with the viewer’s own preconceptions and memories. For me, a painting entitled Garden invokes a forest with figures instead of trees, overlapping, covering, revealing one another.

Simon notes a “nostalgia for the very recent past,” that viewers associate with these works. But there’s a sense of larger human, or at least art, history as well. For instance, Garden is a subtle reference to H. Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and some of his new work often incorporates figures from art history. Simon’s standardized technique, completed with stock figures and historical silhouettes, asks very personal and pointed questions about universality and and its role in individual identity.

Our conversation about these paintings revolved around Simon’s use of the work to consider ideas of consumerism and the of role of the artist. He notes that as people are bombarded with images and often directed by them in a consumer society, artists offer alternatives to that. (To which I half-jokingly added, “with images.”) He offers these images as a template for the many versions of life happening at any moment, demonstrating that life is a “negotiation between extreme subjectivity and the fact that you’re cloned, there’s a prototype, a template.” When asked if he were bothered that our lives are to some extent templated, he replied “no” and that awareness of our place in society can be positive. Simon indicates discomfort with stereotypical views of the role of the artist in society as one of self-expression. Although he has toyed with the concept of removing the artist from the process, he has also turned that theory on its head, producing My Life in Pictures, Volume 2, a panel diptych on which stock figures carefully placed on a grid represent moments or memories from his own life.

In peeking through the forest (or the Garden, as it were) we are forced to respond to those human silhouettes, relating to or rejecting each one. Simon has made the generic personal. The work presents a collection of cookie-cutter, templated identities that we choose for ourselves, suggesting that we extract uniqueness from even the most generic circumstances.

Acetate stencils hang in the studio window.

A detail of Adam Simon's panel painting entitled, "Garden."

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