‘Reactionary’ images

Jason Adkins’ still lifes possess a controlled spontaneity

SECOND LOOK <br>St. Sebastian, a large black-and-white copy of “an old master,” from Jason Adkins, at Moxie’s.

St. Sebastian, a large black-and-white copy of “an old master,” from Jason Adkins, at Moxie’s.

photo by Tom Angel

“Still life constructions” is how artist Jason Adkins describes his mixed-media works at Moxie’s. On view are a baker’s dozen of paintings, ranging from a large black-and-white copy (after an “old master") of St. Sebastian pierced by arrows, to tasteful charcoal studies of nudes and including about 10 still lifes.

In his brief notes for the show, Adkins writes that the still life “traditionally focuses on a careful arrangement of aesthetically pleasing objects. In contrast, my arrangements are chaotic and often on first glance quite ugly. It is then up to me to discover the piece rather than copy it.”

In a telephone interview, Adkins, who’s 28, related that he originated in Washington, majored in Spanish at Walla Walla and spent a year in Spain. He discovered Chico and the university’s Art Department after returning to the States. Adkins is finishing his B.F.A, with an eye forward on an M.F.A.

Adkins’ strongest work in this show seems created by a more mature artist. Two works from 1999 are still life set-ups involving artist brushes, tubes of paint, bits of newspaper glued to the surface, and other materials found in the studio. It is hard to convey in words the delightful animated quality of Adkins’ depiction.

The objects seem to dance with animation that refers back to life rather than Disney. The brushwork, line and color all combine in a joyful breakfast for the eyes. As abstract composition, the two studio still lifes are rich and fulfilling, inviting a happy kinetic response from the viewer.

The other still-life paintings use traditional objects: wine bottles, vases, flowering plants in vases, pitchers. Standing out in this group, the work that seems best to realize Adkins’ aim comes from 1998. It shows a vase about mid-canvas on a stool, and sprouting up from the vase are the stalks of plants topped by flowers. To the right is the shape of a chair, and here and there about the space are other objects. The colors are muted, quiet—ochres, siennas, as unobtrusive as a cat napping in the sunroom. But here and there Adkins has laid down flashes of red accent, a bit on the flowers, a line here and there stolen from a fire truck.

From a proper viewing distance, the brushwork reveals the spontaneous process of Adkins’ discovery and appears to be a cousin to Emil Nolde’s frenzied trance-like sessions at the easel. But there is nothing chaotic to be seen. This is the controlled spontaneity one hears in Charlie Parker or sees in the improvisation of a skilled dancer.

Seen up close, the muted quality of the work gives way to a promise fulfilled. Adkins as a colorist is superb. The richness of his accents and, above all, the rightness and certainty of his touch are deeply fulfilling.

The other works of this series, newer works from 2001, don’t quite match the freshness and excitement of the earlier pieces. After Cezanne, Braque, Thiebaud, the still-life genre may never again take on a revolutionary demeanor, and as Adkins writes, his still lifes are “reactionary,” a word with political overtones, carrying one back to the constrictions of tradition, a world that excluded those artists “concerned solely with the development of an aesthetic.”

What appears to be showing in the later works is the emergence of a formula, an intellectual process starting to overshadow the raw. Capable as they are, they fall just short of possession of the “come hither” quality that rewards the planting of one’s feet in front of the artist’s window.

Adkins has a large work, 80 by 81 inches. A person with an MTV frame of mind might identify it as abstract art and cut to the next image. Such a person would miss out. The painting is the opposite of pyrotechnic. It doesn’t clamor for attention. Its surface is indistinct, hazy, something that doesn’t wear its heart on a sleeve. It’s like a walk before sunrise in a thick friendly fog. The requirement is to go slow, to allow the road to unwind under one’s feet, or, as with the painting, to relax and coax out images and relationships and associations.

Well worth the trip to Moxie’s for some rejuvenation and peaceful moments.