Somber Photographs Inspire Adam Adach’s Tryst With History

Walking west on 22nd Street, heading toward the Robert Gober show at Matthew Marks Gallery, I caught sight of what looked to be a diptych in the window of the D’Amelio Terras Gallery-two canvases, each depicting a hot-air balloon. D’Amelio Terras wasn’t on my short list of places to visit; it wasn’t even on my long list. The gallery, with its unbearably chic roster of artists, has yet to deliver in the way of aesthetic pleasure. The pictures beckoned all the same, so I crossed the street. Upon entry to the gallery, I became acquainted with the paintings of Adam Adach.

This is the first New York exhibition for Mr. Adach, a native of Poland who lives and works in Paris. His art is typical of the Chelsea norm, which, at this point, is the international norm. (Ah, the benefits of globalism.) He paints from photographs and does so in a smart, savvy and slick manner.

But there’s a difference: Mr. Adach is particular about the photographs he employs, and that particularity evinces a not-insignificant foundation. Some of the photos are from family albums; some are found; others are gleaned from periodicals and books. All of them share a palette (predominantly black and white) and a mood (somber). Even if you didn’t know that Mr. Adach was preoccupied with communism and fascism-makes sense, given the land of his birth-you’d realize that oppression is his subject.

The paintings are burdened by narrative and feel drab with acceptance. The images can be prosaic (men on a wharf, nondescript architecture), redolent of disaster (a sinking ship, a dilapidated building) or filled with curious portent (those hot-air balloons, a rowboat on the lake). Mr. Adach’s figures are either automatons or symbols; individual flesh and blood isn’t his forte. A dour, unwelcome vein of nostalgia runs throughout the work, quickened at times (and just barely) by vaporous trails of red, pink and orange.

More an image-maker than a painter, Mr. Adach isn’t up to the task of giving body to the weight of history. Mistaking a lax hand and a lot of drips for painterliness, he doesn’t bother with developing a picture. His adroitness with a brush can’t disguise an abiding callowness-he doesn’t dig very deep. Still, the pictures aren’t without spark; they certainly aren’t without rationale. At the very least, Mr. Adach’s art acknowledges the permanence of history. That’s something in our amnesiac age. This is an auspicious debut; let’s hope success doesn’t go to his head, or D’Amelio Terras to his aesthetic.

Adam Adach: New Paintings is at D’Amelio Terras, 525 West 22nd Street, until April 30.

Goberism’s

I did ultimately make it to Robert Gober’s installation at the Matthew Marks Gallery. It has to be seen to be believed-but can it be understood? A Robert Gober Lexicon, two volumes published in conjunction with the current exhibition and available for 40 bucks at the front desk, looks to be the Rosetta stone for everything Goberesque.

Flipping through the pages, I noted references to Greek mythology, avowals of handicraft and photographs of paintings by Grünewald and Salvador Dali, and a section on the Elgin Marbles. Is it possible to comprehend Mr. Gober’s work without a user’s manual? Sex and death are a constant in the mix, yet with an artist as famously cryptic as this one, you need all the help you can get.

Strolling around the exquisitely arranged provocations at Marks-to name three: prints of the Sept. 12, 2001, edition of The New York Times printed both backwards and forwards; two waxy sets of legs ensconced in tubs threatening to overflow; and a sculpture of the crucifixion featuring a headless Christ with water streaming from his nipples-I felt, at last, that I had come to know Mr. Gober. He is a man of profound feeling and rare intellectual scope, a visionary troubled to the depths of his soul by the awful-just awful!-march of history.

That’s what Mr. Gober would like us to believe. The truth is more mundane. The clammy neo-Dadaist mementos-did I mention the package of diapers displayed as if it were the Shroud of Turin?-are testimony to the revelations of a man who doesn’t much venture outside the sticky confines of his psyche. Did you know that 9/11 was a significant and terrible event? Or that the 2004 Presidential election was, like, a big deal?

That Mr. Gober came to these realizations is a healthy sign-recognition of the outside world being a firm first baby step away from the strictures of self. All the same, it doesn’t mean that the work gains in authority or that he’s a changed man. If anything, it proves that art predicated on nihilism and narcissism is inherently ill equipped to illuminate world events. Mr. Gober can point, point, point to 9/11. What he can’t do is convince us that it’s anything more than a prop for his obsessions. That’s the trouble with fetishists: They engage in experience only if it is funneled through the prerogatives of an intensely private need.

If you’re inclined to meet Mr. Gober on his own icky patch of turf, you might find his 9/11 memorial, with its attendant digs at the Republican Party, a major and perhaps even moving piece of art. If you think art is a matter of expanding, redefining and deepening the turf, you’ll puzzle over Mr. Gober’s major rep. If you’re outraged that someone should exploit history to satisfy his own ugly compulsions, you’ll ask Mr. Gober to please keep it to himself.

Robert Gober is at the Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 West 22nd Street, until April 23.