David Adey


Superstar Cluster (detail), 2012
Digital images, laser-cut digital print and pins on foam panel
35″ x 35″ x 3.5″

Homepage Image: Flock (detail), 2010
Formation of forty miniature ceramic lambs, neon halos, electronics and wiring
12 feet (overall length)
Photos: courtesy Scott White Contemporary

San Diego artist David Adey makes provocative and often dramatic work, that explores the seductiveness of images to startling effect. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from his outward persona. As Dale Schierholt–who spent a year filming Adey for his 2014 documentary “Art by Constraint”–describes him, David Adey is, simply, “a working artist.” At a time when MFA students covet celebrity status, yearning to land a spot in the Whitney Biennial and a cover on Artforum, Adey, age 41, is committed to making art for the long run, rather than achieving “art star” status. As the youngest and first conceptual artist Schierholt has filmed, the filmmaker says he felt challenged, observing: “There’s not that romantic image of the studio with the dried brushes, oil paints and smell of turpentine in the air–a lot of it is development on the computer.” Joking that Adey doesn’t fit the profile of the eccentric artist, he adds, “I always tease Dave, because as an artist, he’s just not weird enoughÉ he’s a well-grounded normal guy.”

Yet Adey’s seemingly “normal” persona is deceptive. His work pushes boundaries, both formally and conceptually. Adey’s exhibition “John Henry,” at the Luis De Jesus Gallery in Los Angles was named one of the top ten 2010 Southern California exhibitions in the Huffington Post. Based on the mythic figure from American folklore, the installation presents an engineering feat in which rows of books are suspended without shelves and precariously balanced above sawhorses. The work plays with the “humorous idea of a library bursting at the seams” says Hugh Davies, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) who experienced the piece during a previous installation at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla. ItÕs striking concept and presentation aside, “John Henry” demonstrates Adey’s ability to create a work around an idea using a system of constraints with surprising results.

John Henry
Books, clamps, wedges, wood shims,
steel bracing, sawhorses
42′ x 27′
Installation at The Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, La Jolla, CA

A professor at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), San Diego, Adey spent his 40th year on sabbatical through a residency with Scott White Contemporary Art (SWCA). Davies states, “I admire the fact Scott White funded this residency, it was very visionary on his part,” adding that Adey “took full advantage and pushed the envelope again to experiment with new bodies of work.” During his residency, Schierholt filmed Adey as he created new work for his recent solo exhibition at Scott White called “Hither and Yon” which ran from January 11 – February 15, 2014. Adey notes, “It was one of the greatest years of my life… it was tremendous to have the time… The last time I was in the classroom, I was 39 and when I set foot back in the classroom I was 41.”

Coinciding with the show’s opening, on January 11, 2014, Schierholt’s film “Art by Constraint” screened at MCASD, followed by a packed opening reception at SWCA, where people waited in line to catch a glimpse of Adey’s latest work. Davies describes the exhibition as reflecting a “kind of rigorous level of thinking and consummate craftsmanship. Anything [Adey] turns his hand to he does so elegantly and thoroughly–very satisfying.” As a rule, Schierholt’s films have typically focused on more seasoned artists of an older generation, such as Robert Indiana and Louise Nevelson; however, while the filmmaker acknowledges that Adey may not yet be well-known outside the art world, he expects his reputation to expand within itÑas do the many others who have come to admire his work.

Art has been a part of Adey’s life since he grew up in New Jersey, as a self-described “art kid.” Unlike Adey’s own students, whose parents typically encourage more financially stable pursuits, Adey’s family didn’t question his pursuit of a career in art. From a young age his grandmother took him to NY to experience the Met while his parents kept him stocked in art supplies. Lured by surfing images of PLNU, San Diego, Adey moved out west for college. He recalls, “The first place I ever heard about PLNU was from a surfer magazine [that] ranked PLNU as the number one school to go to if you wanted to surf… I had pictures of it all over my wall in the middle of winter. I had never been west of Philadelphia and never even visited the campus. I applied, got in, and showed up, and that was my first time being in California.” While there, Adey studied under Jim Skalman, the contemporary artist responsible for transforming PLNU’s art department from a traditional program to one favoring conceptual and installation art–providing the groundwork for Adey’s position at PLNU today.

Although Adey concentrated in sculpture, he worked as a graphic designer after college for several years before returning to visual art in grad school at Cranbrook, MI. Adey states, “I was a visual arts major and professed to hating graphic design at the time. There was a divide, as there is at a lot of schools, between the sell-out designer and the sort of bohemian artist. And so I didn’t get into graphic design until I took one class my senior year.” Working in NY and NJ, Adey discovered that “design is all about constraints and that’s part of the appeal. My experience in design informs my work now.” After working back east, Adey landed a job with the respected SD-based firm MiresBall, who since designed the catalogue for Adey’s recent SWCA exhibition. MiresBall brought AdeyÕs design skills to the next level. Yet after five years, often working fifty hours a week behind a computer screen, Adey felt a longing to return to art-making. As he recalls, “I remember working in my studio alone late at night… and it was rough. I was working on this deadline trying to finish this project and I thought ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’É I hadn’t made a piece of serious art in six years since I graduated.” That night, he took ten minutes out to request grad school catalogs online. “A few weeks later, all these catalogs started showing up in the mail and I thought ‘I really want to do this.’ That was the first step.”

Despite his mixed experience, graphic design informs the underlying tension found in Adey’s work today. It has served him as an artist in terms of discipline, focus, and an understanding of how images from visual culture shape notions of self-identity. Adey states, “Being involved in branding and not all together comfortable with it–graphic design essentially creates desire–I think there are some campaigns that I was involved in, as a young designer, that now, being a little older, I would question.”

In particular, Adey now cringes at a national beer campaign he once worked on as a freelance designer, transforming photos of contemporary models into Vargas style pin-ups through Photoshop. The experience encouraged him to examine his role in helping create desire for certain images. This questioning set the stage for his body of visual art today shown at Scott White, deconstructing and reworking celebrity and model images culled from the Internet.

Intricately pinned and framed, like entomological studies, these laser-cut works are quick to draw viewers in. Works such as Gravitational Radius (2013), a mandala created from over eight hundred fragmented laser-cut body limbs, and Starbirth (2014), a vortex of hun
dreds of lips, are at once visually mesmerizing yet sinister. This contradiction is inherent in Adey’s work. As he explains, “It’s that dichotomy and internal turmoil, to be able to look at this system from an outside perspective, that I find totally absurd. Yet [I recognize] I’m sort of a cog in the machine as well. I’m under the same spell, in essence. It does often come from a personal place–questioning my own motivations and desires.” These intimate digitally manipulated images are further contextualized through Adey’s use of vast celestial formations.

As a grad student at Cranbrook under Heather McGill and Tony Hepburn, Adey felt encouraged to experiment and create thought-provoking work. He recalls that his mentors “were really good at bringing you out and giving you the freedom to fail… There was a push to get away from your roots and do something that you wouldn’t normally do.”

As a result, Adey began to create work dealing with death, process, and resurrection-as well as notions of individuality verses homogeneity that inform his current work. In 2001, while at Cranbrook, Adey created The Lamb, a life size Frankenstein-esque lamb molded from butchered retail cuts of lamb meat and ground lamb carefully stitched together. The lamb provided an apt symbol due to its religious symbolism.

In 2010, Adey’s works The New Lamb and The New Bomb were exhibited at MCASD together as part of the exhibition “Here Not There: San Diego Art Now.” Upon entering MCASD, visitors immediately encountered a life-size “mother sheep” and a full-scale replica of a smart bomb “constructed with the corresponding body parts from hundreds of identical, miniature, pearl-glazed ceramic lambs.” Davies describes the installation as “very eye-catching, beautiful work.” But he adds, “it also has the strong socio-political message, with the cloning of flock.” Displayed in conjunction, the sculptures play with the idea of innocence vs. the dangers of mass mentality.

Flock (2010), exhibited at the 2010 California Biennial, was also included in the recent gallery exhibition at Scott White, the only previous work not created as part of Adey’s residency. The work dramatically presents 40 miniature kitsch-style ceramic lambs wearing neon haloes, lined up and tethered back through electronic wiring to a singular power source. The lamb works address the pull between individuality and homogeneity. In these cases, rather than deconstruct celebrity and mass media images, Adey tackles his complex relationship with organized religion. Initially the lambs appear accessible and comforting, in the same vein that celebrity images highlight a standardized form of beauty. Yet a disturbing force may be experienced from the accumulation of supposedly innocent lambs as with an overload of mass media images.

Adey’s latest ambitious project, Hide (2013), created during his SWCA residency, represents a ‘hide’ of his entire physical body comprised of over 75,000 triangles from a three-dimensional scanned model that are peeled and flattened into one piece. Connected to his laser-cut, mass media pinned images, Hide represents a culmination of Adey’s exploration of the skin and surface of the body.

“Art by Constraint” drolly captures the trial process of Adey’s original plan to coat his entire body in silicone-peeling and flattening it into one piece, inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion flattened map of the globe. After many failed attempts, Adey turned to a digital alternative, using a 3D camera from an Xbox 360 gaming system; he shaved and scanned his body for a 3-D triangulated model, that he tediously flattened, laser cut, and pinned, resulting in Hide. The striking ten-foot-by-nine-foot symmetrical diptych represents every part of Adey’s body. Yet nothing is exposed due to the abstracted nature of the scan.

Highlighting Adey’s interest in space and physics, Hide transforms his own body into an otherworldly map of intricate formations, creating a captivating experience. Corresponding to Hide, Adey created Halo (2014), a mapping of his bust; Hand Studies (2013), three laser-cut pinned pieces paying homage to Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Blue Green; and the series Terrestrial Nebula (2013-14), intimate color studies of layered clusters conjuring the cosmic.

The play between the individual and universal has interested Adey from early on. While in grad school, he was struck by the 2002 Whitney Biennial video installation, a small world, Sanford Biggers’ and Jennifer Zackin’s collaboration, fusing Super 8 home movies. Adey explains how African-American and Jewish children diverged and then came together for moments, blowing out birthday candles or playing piano. “The artist’s hand had little involvement, but the implications were vast. The idea that their individual stories could become universalÉ was both simple and complex.” Hide and its counterparts similarly reflect this simplicity and complexity, and the aspiration to connect the individual with the universal.

Continuing his fascination with measurement, Life Clock (2013), provides a digital mortality countdown clock. The prototype is based on Adey’s personal data, but can be customized to any individual’s background. Rooted in actuarial statistics and mathematics it demonstrates the multi-disciplinary potential of art. Adey states, “Math is appealing to me because these complex ideas can be understood through a beautifully elegant equation.” Life Clock calculates one’s expected time of death down to the second based on personal statistics. The visual impact of hundredths of seconds passing reminds us of the finite nature of human experience.

While discussing future projects Adey is animated and passionate. It doesn’t faze him that ideas may take years to realize-with the right opportunity he will make them happen. Following a set of self-imposed constraints his conceptual art is anything but a detached mental exercise. Rather, Adey provides viewers with visually stunning experiences that hit us on a multitude of levels.

Currently, he has plans for a large-scale installation further exploring his interest in the impact of mass-media images on the physical body. “I’ve had a shortage of time and resources, but never ideas,” he exclaims. In the meantime, Adey will continue to experiment, riding out both failures and accolades. As Hugh Davies notes, Adey is “not resting on his laurels, but is really pushing the boundaries, and that’s a very positive sign for a relatively young artist. He is a very serious, committed artist who has already achieved a lot, but has great promise given the trajectory of his work. It will be really exciting to watch him in the years ahead.”