Ryan Adams, “Out Grow” Images courtesy of the artist

New galleries seem to be proliferating in Maine. One of those, Notch8 Gallery in Portland’s Old Port, is hosting its second show, a group of paintings by Ryan Adams called “Second Season,” which runs through Nov. 12. (Next week, I’ll cover another, Dunes, on Congress Street, along with the more established Buoy Gallery in Kittery.)

By now, Ryan Adams is – deservedly – a household name in Maine. His mural work, on which he has occasionally collaborated with other artists, including his wife, Rachel Gloria Adams (Notch8’s first show), adorns many buildings from Kittery to Milo. His work has been featured at the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland.

Adams’ wall-scale, graffiti-influenced work, which features messages whose letters are partially obscured by eye-popping colors and geometric patterns, are widely admired for their complexity and layering, which transcend his roots in graffiti and sign painting. It’s a unique hybrid that is instantly recognizable and irresistibly intriguing, beckoning viewers to decipher the message so skillfully buried in the patterns. One day, while working on a mural with another artist, Adams told me, his colleague put down his tools, looked at Adams’ work and exclaimed with astonishment, “Dude, your brain!”

That statement could serve as the sum-total of my experience at Notch8 the night of the opening of “Second Season.” But I realize a little context might be useful. Many of these works were created during residencies at the Indigo Arts Alliance in Portland and the Surf Point Foundation in York. Clearly, these were exceptionally fruitful interludes in his creative process. The first thing that blew me away was how close Adams has evolved toward abstraction. The messages are so dexterously imbedded in many of the paintings’ patterns that you could miss them entirely.

Critics and collectors have compared his work to the analytical cubism of Braque, Gris and Picasso. That’s tempting, especially when you look at a painting like “Play to Win,” with its mottled colors and fractured planes. But this comparison exposes an art world compulsion, thankfully beginning to change, that always relates work back to a white art canon.

In actuality, Adams’s work has no such precedent. His inspirations derive from graffiti artists – also called “writers” for their use of lettering – such as DONDI (the late Donald Joseph White) and Futura 2000 (Leonard Hilton McGurr). The latter pioneered abstract street art, while the former preferred a more legible visual form. Today, the work of both artists sells for five and six figures at auction.

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Ryan Adams, “It’s All For You”

The messages in most of Adams’s paintings at Notch8 are so engulfed in their geometries that they can be rendered almost illegible. Interestingly, this highlights, and enhances our appreciation for, his incredible formal compositional discipline (I repeat: “Dude, your mind!”). They are so intricately structured, their sly shifting of foreground and background so dynamic, that it’s easy to simply be sucked into them without discerning a single letter. Their surfaces fracture like diamonds. The energy they emanate ripples, glistens and vibrates.

But, of course, the messages are of paramount importance, often informing the palette and the degree of obscuration or clarity Adams intends. A joyful work like “It’s All for You” is, quite literally, the color of children’s toys because the sentiment relates to the Adamses’ daughters, Nora and Zöe. Conversely, “Hold On,” sporting the red, green and black of the Pan-African flag, relates to the 1972 Black pride song, “My People … Hold On,” by Eddie Kendricks.

Ryan Adams, “Unlike The Others”

Adams constantly jots down phrases that describe his experience of daily life. Sometimes he wants those messages to confront the viewer, especially when they are political or social in nature. “Unlike the Others,” for instance, is easily legible. The palette is deliberately flesh-toned, by which I mean browns, tans, taupes, pinky beiges and whites.

The painting represents a contemplation of his own status as a kind of outsider – both as a brown man in one of the whitest states in America and, because he was raised amidst mostly white friends, not fully immersed in Black and brown culture, either. Grays throughout stabilize the painting but also emphasize the ambiguity of this condition (though he also admits the palette might have been influenced by the colors of rocks and sky outside his studio at Surf Point).

Yet the message is also discouragingly relevant today, so Adams allows it to dominate. In this way, he speaks to the larger phenomenon of othering that has persisted for centuries and seems in the ascendant again amid recalcitrant attitudes about race, sexuality, gender, nationalism and so on.

Another surprise for those who are familiar with this artist only through his murals is how painterly the work of Adams can be, especially at this more intimate scale. The largest works are probably no more than 2-by-3 feet, while various works are barely 8-by-12 inches.

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In mural work, colors tend to be solid and flat to elicit a more graphic quality that is easily read and grasped from a distance or from a passing car. There is no such requirement in studio painting (although Pop Art certainly borrowed heavily from graphic arts in this regard). For these works, Adams allowed himself the freedom to experiment with medium and color application.

Ryan Adams, “Hold On”

Consequently, the range of techniques on display here is fascinating: dry-brushed color over black (“Hold On”), acrylic and pencil (“You Good?”), washes of color on compressed paper (“Yup” and “MHM”), flecking (“Stay Petty”), collage (“Ayuh”), visible wet brushstrokes (“Never Do What They Do” and “Unlike the Others”), spray-painted lettering over color-gradated grounds (“Out Grow”).

One painting, “Everything Goes,” alternates various tones of black (some tinted blue) and areas of sheen and matte. The matte shapes have an almost eerie depth in the way they absorb all light and space, especially when juxtaposed with shinier shapes that inhabit only the surface.

Ryan Adams, “Never Do What They Do”

There is a lot here. Many of the paintings could use a lot more room to breathe. Just compare the experience of looking at “Never Do What They Do,” which is isolated on a strip of wall, with looking at a line of paintings hung no more than a few inches apart. “Never Do” draws you completely into it. But the size and vibrant tequila sunrise colors of “Out Grow” pulls attention away from the paintings flanking it, the lavender-toned “Play to Win” and the green and brown “Stay Petty.”

This can’t be helped, since the gallery is located in what was originally built in 1924 to be a club house for the Portland Fraternity. Gallery owner Sharon Dennehy has necessarily packed these paintings in (otherwise, she might have had space for only about five works in the main room). So, it feels like an embarrassment of riches. Which, of course, it is.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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