If painting can be said to live at the threshold between the external visual world of objects and the internal visual world of the imagination, the relative pull of either pole varies widely from artist to artist, and even within the lifetime of a single artist.
In Lisa Adams’ “Second Life,” her second solo exhibition with CB1 Gallery, the tug of war is palpable.
The cause of this equivocation was at least partly physiological. In the midst of her work on the 16 paintings that appear in the show, Adams was diagnosed with a torn retina. She was unable to see for several weeks following surgery, and unable to paint for several months. The external gaze was obliged to turn in, and the work that emerged bears traces of a struggle to reconcile the two modes of seeing.
The finely wrought birds, trees, flowers and cloudscapes of earlier work have given way, in large part, to a speculative tussle with geometric form and the layering of loose, enigmatic fragments.
As in previous work, Adams’ compositions float in a flat, indeterminate space characterized by fleeting indications of a sky or a horizon line. The tone, however, is less organic than cognitive, implying a realm of painterly subconscious, with undercurrents of De Chirico, Dalí and Miró.
It is not a shift from representation to abstraction — Adams has always moved between the two — so much as the loosening of a hold on representational objects, with all their advantages and limitations, and a self-conscious embrace of the more nebulous terms of imaginative space.
They are, on the whole, rather awkward paintings. Not all manage to spark with equal conviction. It is the awkwardness of investigation, however, rather than complacency or incompetence, that makes the show an engaging journey.
That there is one truly stunning painting in the group seems ample evidence that the journey is likely to bear fruit in the end. Titled “The Mire of Epiphany,” it is, perhaps notably, the simplest of the lot: A flat black dot, roughly 18 inches in diameter, floats at the center of a 4-by-5-foot canvas against a beautifully rendered image of clouds and sky, with a handful of slender leafy vines hanging enigmatically to one side.
Without denying Adams’ considerable skill as a representational painter — or the pleasure that skill is sure to inspire in her audience — the work holds any potential indulgence in check with the power of that one geometric shape.
A sphere or a hole, a presence or an absence, an addition or a removal, a Baldessarian joke or a window upon the abyss — the ambiguity of the dot’s implications draws both the painting and the whole experiment of a show into a taut and captivating puzzle.
CB1 Gallery, 207 W. 5th St., Los Angeles, (213) 806-7889, through May 12. Closed Monday and Tuesday. www.cb1gallery.com
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