Artist's Statements

Stephen Adams at Waterstone Gallery

July 2017

Many of my new pieces ponder the close relationships—intimacies—of different objects.

An intimacy is when two (or more) disparate objects touch, or otherwise exist in close proximity. We tend to think of our intimate moments as our most meaningful and tender, but intimacy can also encompass encroachment, violation, and submission.

The pieces reveal how such intimacies might bend toward or ultimately resolve themselves into a kind of unity, or repose, or at least an uneasy harmony.

There are pieces of seemingly mathematical precision and order, and those which riff on and celebrate the ideas of decline, imperfection, and entropy, which themselves contain their own type of order.

Unlike most Northwest glass artists who use kiln fusing, I generally utilize a process of room temperature glass lamination with an optically clear conservator-grade epoxy. I then extensively cold-work and polish the pieces. Lamination allows me to achieve a scale and complexity of form that would be difficult and costly to duplicate with kiln-fired techniques.

The result also accentuates the optical and esthetic properties of layering, in which complexity arises from simple stacking techniques of basic forms. It also increases the likelihood of accident, which I often welcome, because I believe that as the pieces come alive, they have their own intent, which I can’t always know in advance or completely control.

The wood components, which act as a foil to the brittle clarity of glass, are almost entirely found objects (as is a majority of my materials). They are minimally shaped, so as to recall the tree. This invocation of nature, and its juxtaposition with the precise geometry of the glass forms, continue my recurrent interest in the many intimacies and unities between the human and natural worlds.

Fragility, Imperfection, and Resilience
Stephen Adams at Waterstone Gallery

August 4 - 30, 2015

Artist Statement

Short version
1.    Fragility: things break.
2.    Imperfection: live with it.
3.    Resilience: comes from accepting 1 and 2.

Long version
The work in this show is a continuity of themes and paths I’ve been following in the past, so in one sense it’s title could just as easily be the called “New Work”. But, it’s sometimes good for an artist to try and put into words the stuff that’s bubbling around his subconscious while he works, and it can give insight into the new work the artist might not even realize was there.

Fragility, imperfection, and resilience are qualities we usually associate with living things, and especially human beings. Life is fragile—we all die, our imperfections are too numerous to think about comfortably, yet we know that it’s possible for us to bend and not break, to endure difficulties, and to make the best of our flawed circumstances, i.e. to be resilient.

The fact that organisms die, and that random variations happen, or, if you will, "imperfections" occur in a genetic code that's been perfectly stable for eons—is the very engine of evolution. Most artists use thought processes that are looser and less disciplined than those of,say, scientists or mathematicians, and so we have a tendency to talk about subjects in those fields in order to lend more credence and respectability to our work. It may be bogus philosophically to make metaphorical comparisons between, say, evolutionary biology and art,but we artists live in a wider world, and we hear echoes and fragments of ideas that percolate throughout the culture, so, I think it's natural for us to try and relate our narrow concerns to that wider world. It's all part of the stew of ideas we swim in, and part of what makes what artists do interesting is that we reach out and grab ideas that may drift by, and put them to use in unusual or unconventional ways.

So, what does that have to do with art, especially my art? Since I work with glass, I’m keenly aware of the concept of fragility. Glass breaks and is damaged very easily. Recently I saw a documentary about the well-known Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner. She was teaching a class on some glass technique, and one of the first things she did was to deliberately drop a glass piece on the floor. The students gasped. Avery important lesson: glass breaks—deal with it. At another time I saw an incredibly delicate piece of glass art at Bullseye Gallery, and asked how on earth they shipped such a piece, which resembled nothing so much as a small sea urchin with very thin glass spines protruding all around it. I was told that the artist accepted that such a piece had a limited life span, that it could hardly be moved without inflicting some kind of damage on it, and that the piece’s ephemerality was built into its very idea. Accepting the idea that art has a lifespan, that it’s like a living thing, can be a very liberating thing. Because the idea we are sold that art is “eternal” is a chimera.

Related to fragility is the idea of imperfection, because often what determines if an organism lives or dies are flaws in its ability to survive. In art, a flaw in the conception of the piece can cause it to fail, but in a complex piece the possibility of flawlessness, as defined as absolute fidelity to the artist's vision, is almost impossible. When you work with glass, because of its transparency flaws are very easy to see. In my work, there are bubbles in the laminating process, scratches in the grinding and polishing, and chips and dings on the edges. Problems with how the glass and wood fit together. And, wood has its own irregularities—imperfections that arise from its being a once-living object.  Completing a piece means learning to tolerate flaws that don’t seriously detract from its nature. If I didn’t accept a certain amount of imperfection, I’d never complete anything—I’d be stuck forever on the same piece, trying to get it absolutely right. All artists struggle with the question of when to leave well enough alone.When do you make something better by continuing to tinker with it? When do you ruin it by doing so?  I continually try to learn and live with imperfections, so I’m free to move on to new things. The process of aging brings this problem into sharp focus, because you realize you don’t have a whole lot of time left to devote to trivial stuff.

Resilience. I continue to explore the variations of the basic patterns inherent in the natural world: the circle, the spiral, the serpentine,among others. But also basic geometric shapes like rectangles and squares, right angles and straight lines.  These patterns are resilient because they are capable of almost endless change while still maintaining their basic core idea.  I’m interested in how the supposedly different worlds of the human-made and/or human-discovered, interact with naturally occurring forms, and I try to express what I think is their basic unity. A good example of how this unity is expressed is in the idea of division, symmetry, and reflection. Cutting a thing in two is in one sense the most violent, primitive, and artificial thing you can think of, yet it is also what cells do: they divide. They form near-perfect (again the idea of imperfection appears) symmetrical reflections of one another. So, two of the pieces—Intimacy#2 and Quadrants: Intimacy #3 explore ideas of division, reflection, and symmetry. Similarly, several deal with ideas of hidden order. Two of the pieces—Gyre and Influence of an Absent Form—were made by stacking glass around a cylinder, which was then removed. The ordering principle is there, but absent, or rather, unseen, like mathematical laws.  Two of the pieces—Interlocking #5 and Interlocking #6—play with the idea of how the natural and artificial interact: they are separate, but are interlocking with one other to form an unbroken circle.

The individual manifestations of these basic forms and principles are almost infinitely varied and are subject to change, breakage and imperfection, but the ideas themselves are ultimately resilient. 

The Serpent in the Golden Rectangle
Stephen Adams recent work 2009 -2012
Springbox Gallery, Portland, Oregon, June 2012
Gremillion & Co. Fine Art., Dallas, Texas, January 2013

None of my recent pieces are illustrations or examples of the ideas mentioned in this statement. Rather, the ideas areafter-the-fact attempts to describe or evoke some of my thoughts during the period I made the works. First comes the object, and then comes the attempt at conscious explanation. I don’t consider the artistnecessarily authoritative in describing or criticizing the ideas inherent in his or her work.

Many of my recent works are constructed using the proportions of the Golden Rectangle in one form or another.

The sides of a Golden Rectangle are proportionally 1: ~1.618. The “magical” feature of this rectangle is when you remove a square portion from it, the remaining portion is also a Golden Rectangle, and when you remove a square from the second portion, another Golden Rectangle remains, ad infinitum.

These dimensions have intrigued artists and architects for centuries.Architects use these dimensions for windows that are supposed to be intrinsically pleasing to the eye. Painters have used this ratio in the dimensions for portraits. The exterior dimensions of the Parthenon form a Golden Rectangle.

By using the dimensions of the square as the radius of an arc on each of the smaller squares, one can draw, using a compass, a logarithmic spiral, which is one of the basic shapes of nature.

In all the multiplicity of natural forms there are only a handful of these basic shapes, including the logarithmic spiral, the serpentine or meander, and the fractal tree-branching form.  The spiral form is connected to ideas of infinity on both cosmological and microscopic levels. It can be seen in the shapes of galaxies and bacteria. Since there is this mathematical linkage to the concept of limitlessness, I wanted to use the Golden Rectangle consciously as a paradoxical or perhaps perversely limiting factor in the evolution of a given piece.

Some of the completed works started out in the following manner. First,I cut many rectangles of glass in the proportions of the Golden Rectangle. Then, I scored an arc or serpentine shape, for example,through each piece, then broke the glass along the score, so that from each rectangle I would have two pieces, each having one curved edge. I then stacked the glass vertically with the edges slightly offset, so that the edges of the vertical stack followed the same or similar curve used in scoring each individual rectangle. Then I laminate the pieces and grind and polish the edges, which is a very laborious process,taking many days, sometimes weeks. In other works, the components of glass and base have the proportions of a Golden Rectangle. In still another I cut many small glass rectangles in those proportions and stacked them like building blocks.

I have been using the serpentine shape in my work for a number of years. It is the form that flowing water assumes in its interaction with the land, because it requires the least amount of energy--it is the path of least resistance. Rivers and streams are vectors of erosion, as is the wind and the air shaping sand and earth. In a sense they are sculptural tools that shape the earth with water over time on a very large scale.

Our understanding of the mathematics governing these basic shapes,e.g., chaos theory, and fractal geometry—subjects of which I know admittedly very little—has advanced comparatively recently, during the second half of the 20th century. Before that, the older Euclidean geometry, of which the Golden Rectangle is part, had become more than just a mathematical tradition of our culture.  It had become emblematic of civilization itself, and embodied symbolically the values of order, reason, science, restraint, etc. The untamed world—the world of rushing water, hurricanes and tornadoes, vast mountain ranges—was viewed as the world of the Other, of the Romantic Sublime, a world opposite to order and reason. The serpent and other parts of this untamed world became associated with the irrational.  Chaos was viewed as irrational.

My sculpture is not obviously representational, and so in some ways resembles the nonobjective art of the last century. The intention of many artists of that era was to pare art down to its basic constituents, that is, to empty out all meaning and content. I share with them a quest for simplicity, but I believe that, like it or not, meaning, content, symbolism, are inherently present in art objects, or rather, inherently present in the artistic experience. We cannot help but associate even very simple objects with experiences, thoughts,emotions, ideas, symbols. A painting is not just a painted surface on a flat canvas. A sculpture is not merely an arrangement of metal, wood,or stone. Like language, it points to something else.

But today we understand that chaos theory describes the flow of water and complex weather systems. We know that fractal geometry describes the form of mountain ranges and the branching of trees and rivers. They follow mathematical rules as strict as Euclidean geometry. They no longer reside in the untamed, irrational part of the world. Still,there seems to be this tension in our stubborn consciousness between these two “poles” of the world, between the Serpent and the Golden Rectangle, between the irrational and the rational, between Apollo and Dionysus, and it continues to influence the way we perceive things,just as religious mythology profoundly affects us, even though we consciously discount it.

There are still these rich tangled skeins of symbolic and poetic associations and imagery to explore artistically between these two polar “opposites”. They continue to color our perception of the world,even though consciously we know they are not opposites at all, but are each embedded in the one world we perceive.

Since so many of my pieces are composed of glass, whose characteristics include clarity, linearity, weight, transparency, reflectivity, and fragility, I usually seek to exploit and emphasize these seductive,even hypnotic qualities. It is the perfect Apollonian medium, the perfect medium to describe the Euclidian world of the Golden Rectangle:light, order, reason, harmony, and restraint. Glass as a medium is seemingly “permanent” in that it isn’t subject to rot or decay. But it is very brittle and easily broken.

In contrast I have also been using within the same piece other materials suggesting disorder and decay, materials like rusty wire and nails, semi-decayed wood, crumbling concrete--materials having characteristics exactly opposite to those of glass. They are dirty, opaque, crude, amorphous, and inexact, and can allude to the darker,more resilient Dionysian aspects of life like dissolution and decay, which must be given their due.  Otherwise, we are in a state of denial about our own nature and the problems we face--in denial over the fact that the Serpent and the Golden Rectangle are of the same world, that the Serpent is in fact in the Golden Rectangle.

My sculpture is not obviously representational, and so in some ways resembles the nonobjective art of the last century. The intention of many artists of that era was to pare art down to its basic constituents, that is, to empty out all meaning and content. I share with them a quest for simplicity, but I believe that, like it or not, meaning, content, symbolism, are inherently present in art objects, or rather, inherently present in the artistic experience. We cannot help but associate even very simple objects with experiences, thoughts,emotions, ideas, symbols. A painting is not just a painted surface on a flat canvas. A sculpture is not merely an arrangement of metal, wood,or stone. Like language, it points to something else.

Unlike language, the meaning or content of an art object is less exact.  An essay, for example, denotes ideas and arguments using a vocabulary of words in exact ways, and those ideas are subject to logical refutation and rebuttal. But visual art, like poetry, connotes:the meaning arising from an art object is thus fluid, subjective, and emotional, but it does convey ideas that are just as real as those expressed in written or spoken language.

Just as in an essay, a simple set of words—a vocabulary—is combined in a certain order using a multiplicity of rules to express complex concepts, so I use a simple set of objects, combining and juxtaposing them in unexpected or paradoxical ways to convey a similar complexity. The rules that govern these combinations are subtle, but present. My esthetic vocabulary in the last seven years has consisted of common, easily-found objects: lumber, sticks, branches, hollowed-out logs and stumps, stones, copper pipe, glass that’s been cut,fused, and polished.

I don’t strive consciously for either abstraction or representation in my work, but certain abstract shapes I use resemble functional objects, and so acquire a representational character. For example, the curve of a tree trunk might suggest the keel of a ship, an undulating form might bring to mind a snake or worm, a smooth rock might evoke an egg, a concave curve—a nest.  I play with these representational suggestions, using placements that often contradict the functions we expect of those objects. And maybe new meanings arise.

If I had to identify a single thread that runs through my work it is the underlying unity of the natural and the artificial. This has been along-standing theme in my career, since much of my earlier work—primarily mixed-media paintings shown in the Houston area during the 70s and 80s—touched upon the same topic. Since we evolved from nature, the artificial is an evolutionary progression from the natural world, i.e., artifice arises from nature: really anything we do can be viewed as a natural process, as natural as the wind or the rain. When we think of things in terms of the traditional opposition between natural and artificial, it’s a convenient way to categorize the world, but it can also be misleading. There are real differences, but it’s not a matter of a simple demarcation line separating two opposing realms. Rather, many aspects of these opposites relate to each other in complex ways that weave back and forth. They relate to each other as the intricate yet disparate strands of a braid. They are separate but interlocking.

That being said, I discover and/or identify thematic or symbolic content after the fact, and that interpretation is subject to dispute.I don’t think an artist’s interpretation of his or her own work is authoritative, or even necessarily helpful. I never start apiece thinking about what I want it to mean, and I seldom begin a work with the finished state in mind. I might have an idea of the final outcome beforehand, but that idea is less like a blueprint and more like a sign beside a path in the woods.  The writer John Fowles described the process of writing as a “walk in the woods”: the destination is unclear and the path is winding and often tangled,the walk being itself an act of discovery. The act of making is how I discover what I want to convey, what I want to see in the end.

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