It's hardly news that advertisers take pleasure in a captive audience. And a prime target is the person waiting for a bus. Most who wait to get from one place to another expect, aside from the occasional public service announcement, nothing more than another close encounter with Calvin Klein's celebrated Aryan hunks. Proposing the illusion of a mildly kinky status, those Calvin Klein underwear ads are just one more voyeuristic frill of the marketplace. Yet they also suggest that a kind of power has been transferred from the makers of such imagery to its viewers. It's as if the bystander intrudes on and surveys that "moment" of an imagined relationship. It's not the displays that are provocative; what makes them shameless is that they're posted in the street for anyone's fantasy.
Like the Klein ad campaign, the city street operates as a zone of illicit visual inclusions, one that opens up views into supposedly private lives. All of us who circulate there receive such bogus intimacies; psychic entrances and exits seem to be everywhere, and viewers can't help but be alive to them. Accordingly, one of the most interesting developments in recent art has been the emergence of artists who incorporate the incoherence of the modern city into their work, creating a kind of social sculpture that redefines the notion of public art. Krzysztof Wodiczko's photo projections cut through the official facade of corporate and public architecture; Jenny Holzer's publicly situated electronic signboards simulate the language of advertising to deliver messages from the social unconscious. This subversive procedure is also well-established in the work of Dennis Adams, who presently has an exhibition of some 20 works, including full-scale installations, maquettes for unrealized projects and documentations of realized projects, on display at the Contemporary Arts Museum. "Selling History" is the first time Adams' work has been seen in the Southwest. It introduces us to Adams' affinity for bus shelters, pissoirs and adapted kiosks, which stake out the urban street as an arena for action. Often described as "interventionalist sculpture masked as urban furniture," Adams' public projects combine architecture, photography and text to bring historical and political events to greater public awareness. For more than a decade, Adams has insisted that sociopolitical conflicts are intensified within city space, and that power issues can and must be addressed within the urban zone.
The centerpiece of the CAM show is Bus Shelter IV (1987), originally installed in Munster, Germany, and situated in front of the CAM at an existing Metro stop at the corner of Montrose and Bissonnet. Using a setup that, in a commercial context, would lead us to expect a leggy model hawking a designer product, Adams replaces the ad-display portion with photos of convicted Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and his lawyer, Jacques Verges. First installed when Barbie was being tried in France, the shelter became a catalyst for debate throughout Europe.
That was, obviously, as Adams intended. The artist inserts images of controversial historical memories into public spaces to confront social injustices. He addresses urban power structures by jarring the viewer into thinking about the real function and implication of those structures. Adams made photo-and-text works in the 1970s, and has been producing street-sited architectural sculpture since 1983. In these pieces, presented mostly through models at CAM, Adams continues to play with an assortment of visual languages that explore the unstable relationship between image, memory and architectural form. By letting these codes clash within one structure, Adams aims to interrupt the anesthetizing effect of urban chaos. For Adams, the question is to what degree are we all alienated from the environments in which we interact and, by extension, how do we locate the fragile moments of connection? The forgetting of history is a disturbing phenomenon, and it is in the domain of public art that history can be represented and recollected.
For the most part, the models for bus shelters Adams' executed in New York City, Munster and Toronto have a light, Tinkertoy look. Offering standard bus-shelter features -- roof, bench and illuminated message board -- they rework those elements in an architectural language derived from early modernism or constructivism. As Adams' series of bus shelters has progressed, however, the play between the shelter's structure -- intersecting planes, bold primary colors, industrial materials -- and the photographic image it houses has become increasingly sophisticated, if aloof and formulaic.
Even so, Adams deserves credit for battling his way through bureaucracies to get his shelters on the street. In general, Adams employs political figures who some would prefer to forget, thereby fighting the amnesia of our media culture. Whether they contain a photo of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg taken at the time of their arrest on charges of espionage; or of the young Roy Cohn cheek-to-jowl with Senator Joseph McCarthy; or of Native Canadians protesting in Ottawa, Adams' pieces serve as a metaphor for the city's inability to really "shelter" its inhabitants.
The most successful sculptures on view are those that use novel photographic reflections on aluminum to interrupt viewer expectations. As if to highlight the fragility of cultural memory, Adams physically fragments and decontextualizes the historical information contained in his images. Adams' techniques are seemingly calculated to conduct our sight, our physical movement and our empathetic responses through a push-pull process of alternating identification and differentiation. The model for Bus Shelter VIII, which depicts a 1983 act of civil disobedience related to a dispute over land rights by a group of Native Canadians, presents a pair of nearly identical shelters, one placed at a slight angle behind the other. The first shelter has glass on three sides and the empty backside of a light box extending the full length of the shelter's interior. The second shelter structurally mirrors the first, except that all four of its sides consist of smoked glass, thereby absorbing the reflection of the illuminated photograph placed on the back of the first shelter and offering passersby an eerily multiplied and subtly distorted replica of the original image.
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.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events