Terry Adkins, "Muffled Drums," Sept. 10-Oct. 10, 1998, at P.P.O.W., 476 Broome Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
The works in "Muffled Drums," Terry Adkins' show at P.P.O.W., began as junk and ended up as three-dimensional jazz. The junk consists of odds and ends that might come from some forgotten warehouse. The jazz element is the improvisational ingenuity and cultural introspection characteristic of an African American musical tradition.
A jazz musician, Adkins has a deep appreciation of non-Western sculptural traditions. He gives his sculptures spiritual readings and an emotional power typical of African art and village culture. This sense of cultural legacy is complicated by his shrewd use of industrial debris, an element that speaks of the majesty of the American ethos -- once again supported and transformed by the enduring practice of improvisation at the heart of African American folk and musical tradition. The works can also be described as neo-folk craftwork: spare and elegant combinations of recycled materials with a downright suave sense of color and surface.
A perfect example is Amulet, a black braided-string wall piece (that was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art -- the works range in price from $4,500 to $27,000). Amulet stretches down the wall like vertebrae, the delicacy of its materials contrasting with the strength of its methodically strung and looped construction. Minimal and still phat, Forst Mosaic is composed of hundreds (if not thousands) of paper tickets (much like price tags) from an old meat plant. Adkins gathered a gross of orange and yellow tickets into a lush, mandala-like wall piece of fiery color and kinetic surface density. Its rippling, tactile surface groups one way and then another, producing a rustling, sweeping effect like some extraordinary grain field lapping and bustling in the wind.
Revelator, an impressive mural-like wall sculpture, consists of a series of roof trapdoor covers and steel diamond-screen gates, some with woven strips of mylar and squares of cotton fleece, arrayed with painting-like syntax. Revelator makes emotional allusions to spiritual mythology on a grand scale -- its esthetic personality is split between epic painting and monumental sculpture. Another work called Orbits props three abandoned subway staircase railings against the wall, with circular raffia baskets attached to their top ends. The work vibrates with an urbane wit and the sacred power of a tribal artifact. A smaller work like Far Cry (referring most likely to the classic Eric Dolphy tune from 1960) has an articulated, cracked and almost painterly patina that leads the eye from one cultivated surface eruption to another.
Much like the jazz they seem to embody, Adkins' works appropriate high culture esthetics and the low-down dirty stuff that nobody seems to want. And again much like a jazz arranger, Adkins puts these three dimensional riffs into new contexts, tapping into their high frequency spiritual rhythms and reproducing the impulses that make the music swing.
CALVIN REID is an artist and critic who lives in New York.