Going Public

Dennis Adams' bus shelters try to move art into the arena of the city

Thus light boxes contain images that are visible through reflection (in both senses) in mirrors which reflect our gandering selves as well as fragmentary views of hidden spaces, of both memory and city life. More recently, Adams has produced a series of works that take the form of public transaction windows. Perhaps more fragile and minimal than his earlier works, the exchange windows feature hand-slots and glass that have been isolated from their structural frame. In Cash Window III, the site of exchange has shut down completely, becoming a blind spot in both a physical and metaphorical sense. Either way, the viewer is alone with his/her reflection. Behind the transaction window is an imposing color photograph of a mourner touching the forehead of a dead man in the aftermath of the 1989 Romanian revolution. The overall effect is brutally functional, and at the same time painfully tranquil.

By employing such loaded images, Adams creates a politically charged atmosphere in a public context -- even if people can't agree upon the images' exact meanings. Too often, the display of images fragmented by sheets of mirrored glass in the dusk of an early evening or in the full light of day is more unsettling than the shock of, say, seeing a blowup of Jacques Verges on Montrose. Adams claims that his work is not didactic; it does not suggest what the public should know or believe. For him, one of the attractions of the city street is that it opens a work to a much wider range of interpretation than is possible in the conventional gallery setting.

But when separated from such markers of meaning as gallery captions, Adams' photographs become problematic. With their references to nearly forgotten historical events and little known social problems, the images cannot be easily assimilated into the language of the street. Should viewers be made to feel visually illiterate because they don't recognize the images? Klaus Barbie certainly was a loaded image in Germany, but what impact does his image have on a stroller in Houston who may not have the historical knowledge to identify it? Situated in front of the CAM, Bus Shelter IV has the unmistakable look of a Critical Art Project. Adams was to have installed a site-specific bus shelter at an existing bus stop on West Dallas, a shelter that would have reflected the context of its Fourth Ward neighborhood, but Metro nixed the proposal. It's a pity. Instead of enlisting an audience indoctrinated into the language of aesthetics -- that is, preaching to the converted -- the Fourth Ward site could have addressed a non-art public with powerful reminders of failed responsibilities and suppressed memories.

"Dennis Adams: Selling History" will show through February 5 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, 526-0773.

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