by Catherine Musemeche
Four cameras, stacked one on top of the other, their internal workings dissected and diagrammed like a frog in freshman biology class, a square grid constructed of a dizzying number of letters lost in a cloud of ink, a mountain of traced objects piled impossibly high threatening to topple with the next gust of wind. To my untrained eye, a solitary question emerges: How in the world did the artist come up with these?
I am not an artist, but I imagine that most works of art begin with visual inspiration: the crimson blaze of a Texas sunset, the granite repose of a bull rider’s determined jaw, the splash of greens, purples and reds in a basket of produce at the farmer’s market. But for John Adelman that inspiration comes from somewhere else. It comes from rules. Not the kind of rules derived from mathematical formulas or computer-generated algorithms that periodically bubble to the surface of popular art. Nor are they a byproduct of lessons learned about how to mix colors and enhance texture.
Taken as a whole, Adelman’s drawings incorporate the precision of a surgeon, the analytical design of a mechanical engineer, the focus of a watchmaker and, at times, the whimsy of a storyteller.
Adelman finds his rules where the rest of us wouldn’t even bother to look, like the musty pages of the 1979 edition of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary, where an orderly progression of words dictates the movement of his gel ink pens. He finds rules in a scatter of nails poured across a canvas, each one’s shadow demanding meticulous outlining. He finds them in the wispy dangle of threads that emerges after thirty hours of dismantling a quilted tapestry.
The rules play the role of Hollywood director to Adelman’s cast of gel ink pens and found objects. Will he pick up the black or the blue pen? Will the work consist of one frame or three? How many layers of words will it take to complete a grid? Details of execution that might otherwise sap an artist’s energy don’t bother Adelman at all. He simply relies on the rules, and when they are satisfied the work is complete.
Because the rules cannot be easily explained—much less understood—by anyone but Adelman, I asked him to walk me through an example of how he applies them to the creation of a piece. He chose to describe his process for Reproducer 2, a drawing that incorporates a vintage phonograph arm into a series of traced ovals. Adelman first identifies a start word from the dictionary, usually the next word that he comes across after the last work he finished. For Reproducer 2, that word was “husking.”
This one word would dictate everything from the size of ovals traced (“h” dictates he use the number 8 oval), to the color of ink used (“u” is the twenty-first letter of the alphabet, an odd number, so he used blue ink), to the axis of each oval (“s,” the nineteenth letter, loosely translates into the 5 o’clock position). The rest of the ovals in Reproducer 2 are created using the remaining letters in “husking” and its definitions.
His rules might be odd, but they ignite an interplay between words and objects that is palpably unique.
Hoo, one of Adelman’s larger pieces measuring forty-six inches square, is a staggering compilation of words inscribed over words, layers so thick that in the end it is almost impossible to discern what the letters spelled out to begin with. Adelman started the drawing from the center by inscribing the word Hoo and its definition, “interjection, an exclamation having various shades of meaning, indicating joy or surprise, disdain, etc.” He then went to the next word in the dictionary and continued inscribing words and their definitions.
From a distance Hoo looks like a dot matrix that becomes more and more dense as the eye moves from the perimeter towards the center. It is only if you get up very close that you realize what Adelman has created—a tapestry of words woven together by a skilled craftsman.
Taken as a whole, Adelman’s drawings incorporate the precision of a surgeon, the analytical design of a mechanical engineer, the focus of a watchmaker and, at times, the whimsy of a storyteller. It is this unique skillset that enables him to produce such a wide range of works, everything from the methodical and calculated Hoo and Four Cameras, to the fanciful 30 Mousetraps and Camera with Tripod.
Adelman admits that his rules are unconventional, even for an artist, but then he’s never been one to perceive the world in any mainstream way.
“Growing up in Ohio, when I’d do things a different way my sister would say, ‘That’s John.’”
All of his life, be it as a graduate student, a silkscreen printer or an art instructor, people have always noticed that Adelman has a different way of breaking down problems and solving them.
“My brain connections are just not like anyone else’s,” he told me.
But if they were, Adelman probably wouldn’t be producing the works he is. His rules might be odd, but they ignite an interplay between words and objects that is palpably unique. His drawings will cause you to stop and stare in disbelief. You’ll wonder how it is possible for a human being to demonstrate such a single, repetitive focus in the creation of a work until you meet the artist. And then you’ll know.
John Adelman’s drawings can be viewed in person at The Wally Workman Gallery in Austin, Texas or online at WallyWorkmanGallery.com.