Upon first look, John Adelman's ink drawings up at DARKE Gallery don't look like much to make -- messy squiggles, cascading white scratches, quick and efficient dashes on canvas. You could just stop there and move on, but that would be missing everything.
Adelman's works are all about the process -- those messy squiggles are words pulled one by one from the dictionary, written out over and over again until they turn the canvas blue. Those cascading white scratches are nails, thousands of them, translated to paper. And those efficient dashes are pieces of straw, meticulously, maddeningly traced into a black-and-white reproduction.
When you hear it like that, it sounds like you might have wandered into the lab of a paranoid schizophrenic à la A Beautiful Mind. Indeed, Adelman has spent hours upon hours with his nail piles and bales of straw, creating his drawings the hard way. With this obsessive method and use of unconventional materials, his works could be easily dismissed or, to go the other way, hyped and overly simplified (he paints nails and straw!), if it weren't for the understated beauty in the resulting pieces.
Adelman almost exclusively uses gel ink to draw. It's an unexpected material, simple and accessible, though still one that's not uncommon -- Andrei Molodkin's political drawings come to mind. But unlike Molodkin's recognizable images of Obama or George Bush, Adelman's are more abstract. Nails are placed on the canvas according to happenstance in works like "142,136 (nails)" (the title refers to the number of nails used). They cascade down the painting, with shades of blue and green adding dimension. In their mass, they take on a moss-like quality in the giant "142,136," or become like the soft seeds of a dandelion in "16,019 (nails)." They never once stopped being nails physically, but on the canvas, they have managed to become something else entirely.
Other works draw from more concrete subjects. "12,802 (Suzuki front)" and "20,772 (Suzuki back)" are indeed images of a Suzuki, but it looks like one of those connect-the-dots drawings in children's workbooks. That's because Adelman's traced each part of the motorcycle using the words "dirt" and "rust" instead of lines -- this motorcycle is made up of all its extra parts. "4,379 (agapanthus)" operates in a similar way -- Adelman has traced the plant, using lines for its leaves but the words "dirt" and "grass" for the bulk of the body. There's so much grass and dirt that the canvas turns dark blue in some spots from the sheer repetition.
In this sense, one of Adelman's most remarkable pieces is "Dive." The artist continues to use words as his source of inspiration, except here, he's decided to go through the dictionary, writing down words and their definitions starting with "dive." The resulting square of canvas has a midnight blue background and a darker, almost black circle taking up most of the middle. The resulting colors look like simple brushes of watercolor, when in reality they're from the repetitive layering of the words and their definitions, both now made completely indiscernible. Knowing that, the piece gains a depth that you could tell was there, but didn't know why.
The DARKE exhibition, titled "Elixir," is the first solo show of the Houston artist. It's long overdue. Adelman sets himself apart thanks to his unconventional materials and seemingly insane process. In other hands, the works could have been written off as too gimmicky, but in his, they are mysterious and enthralling.
"Elixir" at DARKE Gallery, 320 Detering St., runs now through May 5. For more information, call 713-542-3802 or visit the gallery's Web site.