EXHIBITION: Where I’m From – Derrick Adams

By Danny Dunson

ON VIEW: The Gallery in Baltimore City Hall
September 20, – November 22, 2019

Derrick Adams, Family Portrait #5, 2019. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

What happens when art steps away from the magnificent, the extraordinary, the supernatural, and the sublime? Derrick Adams’s latest body of work strips away the before mentioned attributes often seen in contemporary art. What remains is honest, emotional, familiar, and poetic. Derrick Adams and ArtX Editor in Chief Danny Dunson discuss Adams’s hometown exhibition. Where I’m From, now showing at The Gallery in Baltimore City Hall, marks Adams’ first solo show in his hometown. For this exhibition, Adams unveils ten new large-scale paintings taken from scenes of his childhood in Baltimore City.

Danny Dunson: I’m so excited that you are showing in your hometown, Baltimore, Maryland, and I love that it is being installed in The Gallery of Baltimore City Hall. How did this show come about?

Derrick Adams: About a year ago I was invited by the curator to do a show there, and, I happened to have these paintings of family members that I started last year, taken from photo albums. So I thought, why not show these paintings of my family from Baltimore with the setting of Baltimore in the subject matter?

I knew I wanted to have an exhibition in Baltimore, and this work made sense. Even though it’s a museum space, it is a municipal space—City Hall, so the audience will be very different from audiences of the typical museum and gallery space. It’s free admission, and people are able to come and go. It’s going to be viewed by people who work in the building, as well as people who avidly support art. That’s very important to me because I want everyone to be able to see it.

Derrick Adams, Family Portrait #6, 2019. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

Something that jumps out at me regarding this recent work, is how painterly the images are. This is some of the most painterly work that I’ve ever seen of yours! Tell me about this specific way you have chosen to use paint to tell the story.

Well, these are oil paintings, and in the past, I’ve worked more with acrylics, and my compositions have been more exact, sculptural, and geometric. These paintings are more of a break from the more exact and polished surfaced paintings that I’ve made in the past and will continue to make. For this series I wanted to show some form of expression. Because they are taken from actual photos, I didn’t want them to be as static as the imagery I have done before. With this series I wanted to capture the feeling of the actual family photograph. I really wanted to show the different expressive personalities within the narratives.

Derrick Adams, Family Portrait #10, 2019. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

There is something about the loose rendering, and muted pallet of these paintings that really incite thoughts of nostalgia and dreams and trigger a collective cultural memory. The last time we were together we talked about the recent passing of your mother, and how much she meant to you and your family in Baltimore. How much were you thinking about her while creating the work that is based on family photos?

Well this show is dedicated to my family, even though it’s at City Hall, its more a direct tribute to them, my mom, my aunts, and all of the relatives who are in the paintings. Its about giving them a certain level of exaltation by creating images that are large and monumental. Using this traditional style of painting on canvas provides an art historical framework to the paintings that deviates from the more experimental and abstract frameworks that I typically reference. This framing places my family’s images within a historical context that’s in dialogue with the cannon of Western art.

In this series you have captured very intimate, everyday miracles that happen within families that are often taken for granted, or not noticed at all. But the style you’ve chosen for these pictures, as well as the monumental scale, takes the quotidian genre scene to the level of classical history paintings that visually narrated epic biblical scenes, Greek mythology, and important world happenings…

Yes, I feel it is important to capture different levels of normalcy and ceremony— like my aunt braiding someone’s hair. I really wanted to capture the moments were ceremony and ritual intersect in everyday life, and how these nuanced moments are both historical and monumental!

Derrick Adams, Family Portrait #1, 2019. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

I have to admit, when I saw previews of the work I thought, “wait, this is Derrick’s?!” It didn’t surprise me that the work of this caliber was yours, but it was so refreshing to see an artist of your stature not being limited or confined to one particular mode. After all these years you are still stretching yourself and showing us fresh approaches to image making. You’re flexin’ on us man!

I can do it all (laughter)!

Exactly (laughter)!

The last time we met, we discussed your ongoing series Figures in the Urban Landscape…we discussed how you are very interested in presenting these moments of everyday Black life, something as ordinary as woman carrying a baby while walking down the street and elevating these seemingly ordinary moments. This concept is so important, especially in opposition to President Trump’s recent spewing of venom towards the city of Baltimore. Baltimore for you, and millions of others is a container of so many intimate cultural moments….

Baltimore is a very particular place for me. I always thought of it as a place with a lot of complexity and various social levels. I am excited to present this work because in Black urban spaces, people don’t always think of the concept of normalcy as a celebration. It is important to show and celebrate our people in everyday situations pushing forward in perseverance. These are things that are familiar to me when I think about Baltimore. I think it’s something that other people from Baltimore will recognize in the work as well. These paintings will cause viewers to slow down and examine their own greatness. When you are in the middle of persevering you can’t really think about the beautiful everyday moments, so I want these paintings to be a mirror for the people of Baltimore, and for my family, so they can see and celebrate themselves.

What you just mentioned is incredibly profound because a lot of Black artistic production is in response to extreme situations such as trauma. Don’t get me wrong, this mode of work is also very important and extremely necessary, but it feels so good to let your mind rest a bit—realizing that you are just as Black while sitting in the park, or taking a nap, as when you are fighting against racial injustices. In fact, elevating the normalcy of the everyday is a kind of activism.

Yes! You don’t have to do anything! You can just be walking about your business and be great. You don’t have to entertain people with these extreme versions of what they want you to be.

Derrick Adams, Family Portrait #3, 2019. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

This is a really great place to end our conversation. Is there something really specific that you would like viewers to take away from this exhibition?

I want viewers to look at these images that derive from my family photos to be inspired to revisit their own family archives, to look at their personal histories in the we are taught to look at history at large, in a grand and important way. Let’s examine and honor our culture, our documents! I want to amplify the importance of the Black community revisiting the archive.

Thanks so much Derrick, its so good to speak to you, you’re always gracious and generous with your time. I appreciate all that you do my friend.

Hey, it takes one to know one! See you in Baltimore soon.
I can’t wait— see you soon!

EXHIBITION: Where I’m From – Derrick Adams
The Gallery in Baltimore City Hall
100 N. Holliday Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

ON VIEW: September 20, – November 22, 2019

OPENING RECEPTION: September 20, 2019
6:00PM – 8:00PM

About the Artist
Derrick Adams is one of the most respected and sought-after artists by collectors, gallerists, museums, and celebrities alike. His exhibition highlights include MoMA PS1, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. His work is in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Studio Museum in Harlem, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Birmingham Museum of Art.

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