Adam Straus: Still Looking for the Promised Land
On ViewNohra Haime
April 6 – May 8, 2021
Adam Straus is Still Looking for the Promised Land. A romantic at heart, he’s as humbled by nature’s transcendent beauty as he is unnerved by humanity’s ugly relationship with it. He deals with these ambiguities by conflating the sublime and the absurd with a brush of astringent humor. The impact of his paintings is unsettling, something akin to passing by the Bates Motel—the roadside inn of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—and catching a glimpse of a flashing neon sign promising “We’ll leave the light on for you.” Familiar from earlier projects, this perverse chill runs through the recent works currently on view at Nohra Haime, but there is much here that is new as well.
In a riff on the panoramas we associate with 19th century Hudson River School painters, this exhibition situates the viewer in a surround of iconic mountainscapes—from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Himalayas—as Straus interpreted them from photographs. A well-known devotee of American landscape painting, he continues to awe us with the kind of sublime imagery painted by masters like Thomas Cole, Martin Johnson Heade, and John Frederick Kensett. Still Looking for the Promised Land (2018), for example, depicts a craggy, snow-swept peak, half bathed by warm sunlight, half dark and shivering cold. It rises heavenward, dwarfing a faint line of itinerant souls that traverses the painting’s middle ground, a familiar motif of the sublime that highlights the individual’s insignificance within the almighty scheme of things. Leaping over this quaint idealism, however, Straus targets the overwhelming impact of human disregard for the planet—and everyone on it. In these current works Straus shifts away from his classic oil painting practice to embrace multimedia and computer-based technology. In a process repeated throughout the exhibition, he painted Promised Land over New York Times pages collaged to board, allowing printed stories of global ruination to bleed through the surface image. Faint penciled scribbles across the surface of the finished painting further prophesize humanity’s ultimate demise and return to the earth.
Straus’s meandering path away from traditional methods of oil painting began in 2016. As he told me during a recent studio visit, “All things in the news, from Trump to COVID, went from bad to worse. I wanted to evoke the sense of disruption and destruction I felt whenever I read the morning paper.” In A Crack in the Majestic (2019), this disruption is splayed across a stereotypical mountainscape as a blast of white, bullet-like circles fired through a pegboard screen. A faux crack painted atop the painting’s lead frame extends through the upper reaches of the image. Its dagger-like presence eclipses the mystical rays of sunlight shining upon the mountain top, a familiar motif frequently exploited by tourist-targeted travel ads.
In Old News: No Country for Marlboro Men (2019), Straus layers pulp newsprint beneath the surface of his painting to underscore corporate complicity in the toxification of America and the media’s power to misrepresent reality. Recalling one of the world’s most effective advertising campaigns, the painting’s title references the tobacco industry’s 1954 launch of the Marlboro Man, a sexualized cowboy symbol of masculinity meant to lure men to a product that, until then, had been perceived as “feminine”: filtered cigarettes. The rugged man and landscape depicted in those ads are gone in Straus’s portrayal of the iconic bronco buster on horseback. Here, he is instead reduced to an insignificant blotch riding through a lifeless “desert,” the victim of circumstances he himself has created.
Because commercial imagery transforms natural wonders into clichés, Straus paints his mountains to look much alike. And because today, images of things replace their reality, he messes with his trompe l’oeil draughtsmanship to make a disruptive point, using digitalization, pixelation, and a glitch app to fragment his images. A confluence of these special effects, including digital “candy drops,” animates Big Rock Candy Mountain (2018), a bow to the Burl Ives song about a homeless drunk searching for a paradise where the rivers flow with whiskey.
In Homage to Bob Ross, Bananas, and Bad News (2019), similar effects comment on art world absurdities. Slapdash landscape elements recall the late TV painter referenced in the painting’s title. Ross taught his devoted would-be artist audience “how-to” methods for rendering trees, shadows, and reflections in water—formulaic “bad art” solutions to the challenges of image-making that nevertheless provided aspiring art lovers with some bare-bones technique. A collaged fragment of a rejection letter for a Guggenheim fellowship and a shopping list including bananas—everyday disruptions in Straus’s personal life—further collide with this painting’s disturbing underbelly of printed daily news.
Yet Straus doesn’t give up hope. Years spent communing with nature, as a youngster fishing in Florida’s quiet inlets and as a mature man walking nature trails on the East End of Long Island, where he lives with his family and makes his art, have taught Straus that nature will adapt and prevail as it has for eons. This message is made abundantly clear by a series of charcoal drawings also included at Nohra Haime. Where the technologically-heightened iconography of Straus’s paintings expresses anxiety over a planet severely shaken by human disregard, these luscious works revisit the unadulterated pleasure of making art. Sans digital glitches, Matterhorn (2021) returns to the basics: a stick of charcoal and the artist’s hand. Rising above the fray of bad news, Straus’s drawings emerge from the heart of a romantic who still yearns for that sensory netherworld we call the sublime.