STORMY WEATHER, CANVAS
When Hans Princehorn's Bildnerei der Gefangenen [The Artistry of Inmates] was published in 1926, the area of art that it focused upon was, if at all, merely visible at the outer most fringes. Tattoos, graffiti, encrypted markings ... neither the techniques employed nor the motifs presented (not to mention the image grounds themselves—skin, walls and other everyday objects) appeared to be worth any further consideration whatsoever, and this, to some extent, has remained the case. Indeed, Prinzhorn's collection for addressing the traces of art in prisons—his second 'study on the pictorial creations of untrained artists'—is still virtually unknown today, whereas his Artistry of the Mentally Ill (published in 1922) emerged as a standard reference after the Second World War, and has since become recognized as a pioneering achievement in the field. Although the first book was decidedly rejected or received with a plain lack of understanding by the professional public of the 1920s, endorsement by artists was all the more copious. Emil Nolde even went so far as to supply the author with a valuable reference for inclusion in the second volume. The artist having sighted his find not far from where he lived, Nolde set off single-handedly to capture the discovery with his camera: 'drawings' that had been scratched into the wooden walls of an old prison, which had recently become part of a museum founded in the Danish town of Tønder in 1923.
Since the appearance of Prinzhorn's initiatives, works of art by psychiatric patients have found a wide range of acceptance; by no means, however, can the same be said for the 'pictorial configurations' of criminals. In terms of music (or also, more recently, of fashion), the case has developed somewhat differently—as is also true of certain techniques that are commonly employed in prisons. Indeed, as early as in the 1950s and still more articulately in the 1960s, tattoos and graffiti began to receive quite an amount of attention—at that time largely due to the great provocative potential they possessed. The broad, rebellious youth movement around 1968 did more than refuse to accept being forbidden from enjoying drugs and sex; it also adorned itself in aesthetic symbols appropriated from fringe groups—with all the contingently exotic, disdained and 'primitive' imagery—which were to be more or less clearly understood as signs of badness.
In the present time, these lines of conflict have become hardly discernible and are now, for many, likely altogether unimaginable. Following the end of the Cold War, the style exemplified by tattoos and graffiti has become an integral part of commercial graphics and typeface design. Entire films have been immersed into the murky tones of the cult status. Polemic, overdrawn, confused, obsessed or utterly lost ... even superstars place great value upon embellishing their images with the sleepy slang of this world. The dark tones of the tattoo have become the watermarks for the modern autograph book.
Adam Saks thus interprets signs from the fringes of cultural history in a time in which notions such as adventure and agitation have retained, at best, a certain significance as catchwords in a coarsely spun marketing strategy. It is certainly not with the aim of capturing the folklore or kitsch integral to protest events that he slings the effects of light-swallowing ink, roughly cut, anonymous messages or the heavy embossment of old emblems onto his canvases. On the other hand, he is not able to ignore the vibration, as it were; it is simply no longer possible to imagine art without it—especially in the areas of graphic design and moving images. Whether melancholically fractured or stereotypically standardised (or both), the pathos of darkness is present in both the techniques and motifs; it must necessarily be presupposed as a noise in the background. Only in this way can undesirable repercussions and temporally dependant illusions finally be released, and their employment ensured as a conscious and deliberate affair. Sigmar Polke may well have believed that the hallucinogenic discoloration of his pictures or the silvery sliding of a photo into blurriness might, like the unintelligible jabbering of an opium eater, be capable of enshrouding and thus protecting him from the conventions of cultural correspondence. He too desisted from shirking intelligibility altogether. In the meantime, intimations and cultic residue have become mainstream. Whether outsiders, men with dark pasts, or difficult dames; gangster codes now only signalise any real sort of danger that would demand opposition (beyond the backstage at any rate) to, at best, rightwing or leftwing fundamentalists. Apart from that, it is about reading the signs; whoever can command the codes is able to establish presence, eloquence and competence in the present; it is they who are able to boast of the aptitude required for the job of the arbiter. White skulls, death dances, poppy plants, wild beasts, veiled women and knife throwers—kitsch is no longer parried as unworthy hogwash but understood. The tawdriness of a given phenomenon no longer provides any tenable grounds for exclusion from the pictorial world of 'high culture'. All that is required, in the exchange for representation and respect, is the full relinquishment of control. Acknowledgement is ensured as soon as any powers of decision concerning the dosage and any nuances in intended interpretation have been abdicated.
In the paintings of Adam Saks, the echo of a world marked by encryption and cultic tinting encounters a landscape that is capable of changing not only the colour and its impact but also the very message itself. That is the advantage of painting. Saks causes his motifs to shimmer like opaque reflections upon enamel paint; his colours allude to graphic art. They recall the monochrome shadow of a printing sheet, or blood as it flows from a bottle of ink. In this regard, it is Andy Warhol who tends to come to mind as a role model. Yet, his Car-Crashes were 'painted' to the clamour of the conveyor belt, which, from out of the assembly hall, was to leave the rotary printers of the newspaper publishers to hit the streets and fight its way through the traffic—finally to become stuck in the chassis, crumpled and creased, as a permanent portrait of death. There were no storm indications or climate changes to accompany its dark flowers; it sent the notions of kitsch wafting through the air like a puff of nicotine—like the onset of a terrible headache or, at best, a deep depression ... but its beholders were, even against the potency of this poison, still able to find the appropriate sedatives.
Adam Saks handles the matter in what seems to be a somewhat simpler, or rather more explicit, manner. The poppy field 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. It is under these conditions that methods are felled to make way for the emergence of paintings. Although Adam Saks's palette has clearly been, to some extent, appropriated from the realm of the graphic arts—incorporating monochrome layers, planar application and the crude contours of emblematic stamping—, he knocks the these 'givens' off of their blocks with the same resolve in order to send the picture reeling into formlessness—despite the danger of the whole savage operation and the vestiges of actionism being understood as the return of the avengers, all with the word Nature tattooed upon their backs.
In the field of modernist art theory, painting is renowned for getting into just such embroilments. Turn up all unconstrained, jump into the painting's 'arena' and stick to your guns while replying to any commentary in single syllable utterances ... these are the well known catchphrases for describing the blunders from which the scholars believe to have been liberated. But then, the pundits hold immotile objects in high esteem; they are more easily examined and identified as substances that attack one's own body and penetrate the thoughts. If history is to continue, however, the past must first be replayed as an unfinished one. Blunders belong to experiments such as these like practice to perfection. It is with this degree of certitude that we waft once more through the eye of the flower painter as he captures the carved drawings of a criminal in the viewfinder of his camera to focus in more clearly upon their contours.
Roberto Ohrt, 2012