Look, Ma, No Hands: McAdams’ Dazzling Alchemy

During its heyday in the 1960’s and 70’s, Motown Records was known as a “hit factory.” It’s difficult to imagine

During its heyday in the 1960’s and 70’s, Motown Records was known as a “hit factory.” It’s difficult to imagine anyone who can’t recognize the songs and the sound of Motown. Propulsive, sparkling, spotlessly arranged, and refined without sacrificing grit or flow—their aural character is of a piece.

Motown founder Berry Gordy consciously took the principles of mass production (gleaned from working on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line) and brought them to the music business. But to overstate the record label’s reliance on formula would diminish the distinctive stamp that a musician can put on a song. Individuals as diverse and quirky as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves were vital in augmenting and, in an odd way, strengthening the strictures of the factory.

These considerations came to mind as I mulled over the process-oriented paintings of Shane McAdams, currently on display at Denise Bibro Fine Art in Chelsea. Mr. McAdams’ abstractions may not be Top 40 material, but they’re remarkably consistent in character and quality; there’s not a bum picture in the bunch. Mr. McAdams is a one-man hit factory.

The Motown analogy hits a snag in terms of mood. Mr. McAdams doesn’t wear his soul on his sleeve; the paintings are, in fact, cool and impersonal. Anonymity is the goal. The (somewhat clunky) title of the exhibition, Unmoved Mover, indicates as much: It suggests detachment, and it places the work at a remove from artistic motivation, or at least the temperament that guides it.

Mr. McAdams fashions distinctive images, but his paintings are inherently hands-off. Typically, each canvas is an open-ended accumulation of organic phenomena. Opalescent and atmospheric drips, blips, bubbles and splatters separate, coalesce and expand over the canvas. There’s no “touch” to the paintings; Mr. McAdams doesn’t have one—at least not in the way that, say, Philip Guston has a touch. Mr. McAdams may well consider the notion antiquated or a cliché. He strives to avoid an overt indication of the hand. With their elusive and seductive range of pictorial incident, the viewer is left to puzzle over the painter’s methods. The “how’d he do it?” factor is high.

How he does it is through the resistance that can occur between disparate materials. Call it the oil-and-water school of picture-making. Employing various substances—oils, acrylics and ink, to name just a few—Mr. McAdams exploits their innate material components and adds additional ingredients to upset the balance. Layers of paint pull away from each other, forming rivulets of color and texture. The pictures thrive on incompatibility, paying tribute to process and paint. The science that goes into their making is most evident in the dense, sometimes crystalline surfaces that result.

Enamored of the unavoidable materiality of paint, Mr. McAdams creates uncompromising statements of physical fact. But he doesn’t forgo illusion: The images “discovered” during painting—microscopic life forms, dew-covered spider webs and constellations—rescue the work from object-like inertia. Illusion and, with it, metaphor slip in over the transom, whether Mr. McAdams wants them to or not. It’s to his credit that the paintings are allowed to develop on their own terms.

Chance is a factor as well. The improvisatory nature of Mr. McAdams’ art has its precedent in the Dadaists’ experimentations with chance incident—the scatter collages of Hans Arp come to mind—and, more so, in Color Field painting and Process Art. Mr. McAdams is drawn to strategies in which technical know-how, or the absence of it, can bypass rational thought.

That’s not to say Mr. McAdams doesn’t have control over the destiny of the paintings. He is, in many ways, a control freak. It was the critic Harold Rosenberg, I believe, who made the distinction between the artist who investigates and the artist who explores: The former is interested in results, the latter in experience. Mr. McAdams flits in between the two, with the investigator outgunning the explorer.

The uniformity of the square formatting, the contained nature of the compositions, the reliance on material opposition, even the fact that the paintings are numbered—these self-imposed constraints act like hurdles in front of artistic prospect, but they also help put the work into focus. Given the unequivocal beauty of Mr. McAdams’ pictures, one could argue that narrowness is necessary. But where does such dazzling alchemy lead?

Attempts at intervening in and interrupting a hard-won style—the inclusion of patterns and shapes taken from fabrics and maps, for example—show a painter trying to wiggle out from under the dictates of his own ingenuity. Mr. McAdams would do well to make the most of his palette, with its trailing slurs of jewel-like color, to aid in the broadening of his art. In the meantime, the assembly line remains intact.

Then again, assembly lines can work magic—just ask Berry Gordy. It remains to be seen whether or not Mr. McAdams can keep pumping out the hits, but one thing is certain: Anyone fascinated by the possibilities of painting—not to mention its very real limitations—will keep an eye on his future endeavors. His spare, elegant and knowing art merits our attention.

Shane McAdams: Unmoved Mover is at Denise Bibro Fine Art, 529 West 20th Street, until Oct. 14. Look, Ma, No Hands:  McAdams’ Dazzling Alchemy