Free as a Bird, My Foot:
The Dystopia of Sanctuary in the Work of Lisa Adams
"This is going to be a heavy night, I've seen the future and it's not bright"
"Heavy", Relaxed Muscle
In “The Future of Paradise Lost,” Lisa Adams doesn’t examine pervasive utopian schemes that propose an alternative future that brims with spontaneity and freedom, optimism and lyricism; though it could look that way.
Formally the work, like the world she describes, is two-faced, duplicitous. Its first impression suggests one thing. Its compositions are breezy and light-handed. The colors – light blue or mustard skies, billowy white clouds - are cheerful. The lines – vines, branches, contours of flowers - are sinuous if not sensual. The shapes – images of petite song birds, mostly - are soft and rounded. And the space is flat enough to imply nothing profound; rather, it suggests something lyrical, along the lines of a collaboration between John James Audubon and Hans Hoffmann.
Likewise iconographically. She works with a specific subject: twittering little songbirds – Blakean symbols of innocence; perhaps a metaphor for a female artist - in various stages of disinterested activity: poised on top of a pagoda; nestled on a tree branch; sunning on a vine, in short, just doing what it does, in that moment. She places these birds against the expanse of a broad sky, the better to suggest a segment of her version of utopia, a micro-utopia, really, focusing on one particular subject – a bird – in one particular attitude – unencumbered, free. She forgoes broad schemes of visual cum societal perfection, with their too-many variables – politics, economics, geography - choosing instead to limit herself to this: chirpy little aviaries.
Could anything be more simple?
Could anything be more deceptive?
The two pieces that frame this dyspeptic sanctuary are Prelapsarian Dream and A Bird for Zosimus. The former shows a cameo portrait of a perky little bird – hell, it could be McCauley Caulkin, before he grew up - that radiates in front of a full moon, an egg, a blank slate, unsullied, more a Platonic critter than anything else. The latter – Zosimus was an ancient historian who wrote about the decline of the Roman Empire – shows the same bird lassoed by a frame of thorns (Jesus at Cavalry), against a muddied (read: ominous, apocalyptic) moon/egg/slate.
The rest of the show demonstrates how anything spontaneous – gorgeous little effusions of botany – become schematized – pinned down for scrutiny, stultified, sclerotic. How it becomes a tenet in a tract in a creed.
A Specimen for the Uninitiated shows a purple flower stretched like an overwrought canvas to the point of breaking or else a dead butterfly pinned to a board. Les Jardins Pendu – a reference to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, subsequently destroyed by a series of earthquakes – portrays a barbed vine coiled like an Edenic snake, from which droops the same purple flower, limp (no longer limpid), against a murky olive sky. In Next Services 262,458 Miles, a bird caught in a funnel cloud on an otherwise bucolic day suggests how, being in the calm eye of a tornado really means you’re in the middle of nowhere.
A Cause for Wandering resembles one of those early Soviet cinematic collage shots of Sergei Eisenstein, showing something that seems monumental – multiple Arc de Triomphes that proffer something attained/something to be attained, cotton candy clouds that intimate glorious revolution, glorious future, and yet, upon appraisal of the gauntlet-like barbs on the arcs, concludes, “I’m not walking through that (Stalin, gulags), utopia or not.” And, finally, Omphalos – an illustration of the ancient Greek legend that Zeus send two eagles out to find the center of the world; where they met was the center, commemorated by a stone that resembles a navel – shows two birds, one on each side of such a stone, suggesting both the relativity of belief systems – “Your karma ran over my dogma” - as well as Sartre’s dictum that “Hell is other people.”
The show trumpets the triumph of any scheme – visual or social, modernist or communal - that seeks to portray the world as a self-contained, precious-jeweled music box. That she does it in such a pleasant manner shows that Adams is not so much without hope as much as she has attained a realistic worldview, an accommodation of natural beauty with the good book stricture of Murphy’s Law, that, given the chance, everything, human nature being what it is, goes awry.
Her work’s not so much a process of entropy as imperfection, things don’t become cocked-up, things are cocked-up right from the start. It’s a message that broaches a spirituality of imperfection. Once it does so, it’s up to the viewer to make peace, find eddies of beauty and serenity, where they can find it, on the canvas and, especially, beyond.