POISONOUS EYES, PAINTERLY HALLUCINATIONS
You're poison runnin' through my veins
You're poison, I don't wanna break these chains
– Alice Cooper
Danish artist Adam Saks undoubtedly belongs to the early-2000s generation of painters who liberally pull from various artistic allusions. His paintings begin where the appropriation artists of three decades ago stopped. Historical visions were last seen in the transavantgardists' and neo-expressionists' paintings of the 1980s. At the same time in the genres that emphasized the purist continuity of modernism, the logic of appropriation was interpreted as eclecticism. Today's Google generation has no moral barriers against identifying with multiple interests arising from varied sources.
Adam Saks' motifs rise from art history as well as from tattoos and the nuances of typographic font styles. Free-flowing images, single words, and letters taken out of words give rhythm to the constantly morphing qualities of the paintings. "I always use some kind of reference material; it's really important for me and I gather material from everywhere. I connect elements and make sketches on my pad mostly with a ballpoint pen."
In the last few years, Saks shifted from oil and watercolor techniques to paint acrylics on canvas. These free-form and abundant compositions emphasize the materiality of paint, and result in a stratification of images. Saks' breakthrough was the wild tattoo motifs of his earlier paintings, which displayed sand-colored bodies decorated with sailors, knives, hearts and eagles. The paintings' surface contains floating visual motifs, while in the background human figures are situated around architectural or fragmented sceneries, allowing for free association for viewers. Saks described his shift to the new technique in 2011 as follows: "My new acrylic paintings also have this freshness in their brushwork. The paintings with the tattoos were mainly concerned with volume, the motifs and figures had shaded edges. The acrylic works make no attempt to create depth of form. I did not try to create the illusion of space. These paintings are flat, but depth comes from the overlapping of different motifs."
In previous exhibitions, Saks' allover paintings were overflowing with the abundant poppy motive. One could have viewed them from almost any direction with a sense of uninterrupted continuity. In these new oil paintings, made for Galerie Forsblom, Saks has let loose his inner storyteller once again. In so doing, his paintings challenge viewers to find hidden pictures within the flower fields. Saks helps by naming the most obvious ones in the titles of his works: Lacertilia (Lizard), Fairy, Harvest and Butterfly Bed. Some of the names lead the viewer further towards the meaning of the painting, such as Immersion or Chasing. In the floating daydreams of the paintings, the objects of passionate pursuit may be dreams, wild animals, or entwined objects of unsatisfied desire.
At first glance, Adam Saks' new oil paintings appear saturated with both wild and cultivated flowers: poppies, hibiscus, belladonna. He titled his previous exhibition, held at the Bourouina gallery in Berlin in 2012, "Atropa." The name refers to the decorative plant, Atropa belladonna, also known as belladonna or deadly nightshade. In spite of its toxicity, deadly nightshade is also an important medicinal plant for its atropine content. The substance is used today to dilate pupils in eye exams, an effect earlier Italian women found beautiful and thus used belladonna (which means "beautiful woman" in Italian). Atropos (Greek ??????) was also one of the three Fates in Greek mythology. As the name suggests, she was the inevitable fate, the one who cut the thread of life. In one of Saks' paintings, the fate walks with her knife.
Abstract floral patterns are familiar imagery in the paintings of Matisse, Warhol and Donald Sultan. Warhol once remarked that "art is anything you can get away with." Warhol's definition expanded the premises of art making at a time when the borders between high art and low art were being torn apart. Prior to his silkscreens of flowers, Warhol's paintings had depicted darker imagery such as criminals, car accidents, and handguns. Saks, on the other hand, combines his floral paintings with narrative elements, as well as the darker hues required by a dramatic arc.
What are the concept of time and our historical understanding of the realm of Adam Saks' paintings? It seems that the themes and imagery of Saks' paintings do not rise so much from pop art than from art history and previous image culture. It appears as though Saks' painting style blends into the 1980s transavantgardists, but his themes have been long admired, as by painters of the last century in their idealization of travel logs, or of the London tearooms and opium dens. His works' titles lead us toward the obvious subject matter. These paintings transport one momentarily to another reality, full of longing for distant lands and adventure.
The opium wars in the mid-1800s between Britain and China were partly tied to a costly increase in tea consumption in the UK. The British East India Company tried to balance tea imports by brazenly exporting opium produced in India to the Chinese market. Meanwhile, various artistic disciplines had intensified their interest in the cultures of the Orient. At that time, painters like Ingres, Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme turned their gazes eastward, and painted bathers and odalisques and harems, mosques and lions – while equally investing their efforts into historical scenes and Christian themes in new geographic locations: Turkey, Egypt, and the Middle East. Academic paintings from that time period have since been described with the concept of Orientalism. The concept was created to promote the difference between East and West, between Orient and Occident, through understanding and awareness of differences in cultural practices, which that era's Western anthropologists, historians and artists from different fields carried into their works.
Roberto Ohrt wrote of the mood evoked by Saks' poppy seed paintings: "The poppy fields recall dried flowers; the chaos, bad weather; the rain, gasoline, and the ambiguity, the sign that demarcates an awareness concerning the present day opium wars." And within this topic can be found a sense of urgency in our own time. Press photos of U.S. Marines in camouflage dress supervising poppy fields in Afghanistan indicate the current opium war's economic priorities. Similarly, the current art market has re-discovered Chinese and Middle Eastern art. Today, however, the region's artists and stakeholders are directly involved in the conceptual definition of their art as it is presented in the West.
Adam Saks's paintings' vivid colors and narrative fields create compelling tensions. Illusions and hallucinations can be found in the avalanche of surprises and overflowing visual fields in his paintings: A fairy sways on a crescent moon; skeletons of lizards; and a merry pipe-smoking old moon. These fairytale-like creatures, originating from an epigrammatic tattoo vocabulary, appear to be more from the stories of One Thousand and One Nights than from fever dream hallucinations. Swaying, dripping eye patterns draw the attention of a viewer: atropine-dilated pupils, belladonnas with sleepy eyes wandering among poppy stems. The eye image is an oxymoron: a Turkish protective amulet against the evil eye or the Egyptian God, Horus's eye; or, still further, an eye shaped spoon used for smoking opium. Or are Saks' eye images at the end optical illusions; curves of the letter "C" and patterns that have fallen off the swaggering overflowing surfaces? Illusions that tempt one to look even closer?
Leevi Haapala, PhD, is a researcher of contemporary art, curator and art writer. He works as a curator for collections in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma, Helsinki.
"I always use some kind of reference material, it's really important for me and I gather material from everywhere. I connect elements and make sketches on my pad mostly with a ballpoint pen." David Ulrichs, "Follow you follow me. An Interview", Adam Saks, Bourouina Gallery, Nr. 11 (2011), 2.
"My new acrylic paintings also have this freshness in their brushwork. The paintings with the tattoos were mainly concerned with volume, the motifs and figures had shaded edges. The acrylic works make no attempt to create depth of form. I didn't try to create the illusion of space. These paintings are flat, but depth comes from the overlapping of different motifs." Ibid, 6.
"The poppy fields recalls dried flowers; the chaos, bad weather; the rain, gasoline; and the ambiguity, the sign that demarcates an awareness concerning the present day opium wars." Roberto Ohrt, "Stormy Weather, Canvas and Gasoline", Adam Saks. Ende Neu, Städtische Galerie, Offenburg, 2012.