Derrick Adams's critical commentaries on Black identity are stylized in idioms of pop culture. Sometimes that involves addressing the wrongs of the past—as in his recent installation Sanctuary (2018), inspired by the Negro Motorist Green Book (1936–1967), which was used by African Americans to safely navigate hostile environments in the Jim Crow era. In other works he envisions pure bliss, as in his on-going Floaters series, collages that feature solitary dark-skinned figures at their leisure, floating on inflatables in the azure waters of private swimming pools. It's a dream come true—no fear, no worries, "We've made it baby!" Two of these collages—Floater 82 and Floater 83 (both 2019)—are included in Adams's exhibition, New Icons, at Mary Boone Gallery and delight the eye with their delicate crafting, kaleidoscopically arranged patterned papers and fabrics, and beautiful thin washes of color. These pool pictures suggest the same sort of idealistic spaces that David Hockney staged to represent homoerotic desire.
At first glance, Adams's ten new paintings are equally as chill as the collages, and seem to broadcast fun all the way. Each large canvas presents sets of two or three colorful emojis, emblazoned against black grounds, and we understand immediately the terms of engagement as our familiarity with emoji-speak kicks in. The little icons have become our own digital Esperanto, a near universal language of images that we speed read like text. By now, we are all well-schooled in emoji translation—and that's exactly how we are tasked by the paintings, each of which functions as a portrait we must decode. Given our proficiency, it should be a cinch to discern identities, but no. Without a checklist, we're clueless, which might tell us something about the relative emptiness of the visual signifiers on display. Take it as an attribute—that's what makes them available for personalized content.
Three colorful hearts beam and reflect light against the pitch black surface of the painting Alicia, Patrisse, and Opal (all paintings 2018.) Emoji hearts are vague to the point of being meaningless, but the title names the three women artist-activist co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Now, the hearts make particular sense. Long fingernails being painted pink, on a brown hand, paired with a raised brown fist, are dedicated to Sistah Souljah, who rose to prominence as a political force when she spoke out against then-candidate Bill Clinton's racist personal politics. Across the spectrum of the ten paintings, social activists share the stage with gay activists and activist athletes—a painting of a raised brown fist and a jeweled crown is entitled Colin Kaepernic. In unison, the paintings comprise a pantheon of Black role models. We know their stories, some we identify with personally, some we know on a first-name basis. A painting entitled Kanye consists of two brown-face emojis—one with a tear sliding down its face; the other, with a bigger-than-life grin.
Crying and laughing at the same time is an apt description of the expressive dimensions Adams enables in these works. Collectively, the subjects of these paintings stand as beacons of achievement and success, so much so that we could imagine the story the paintings want to tell is one in which the door has been shut on the disenfranchisement of African Americans. The happy emojis seem to announce a time for celebration, as if to say, "We've moved on. Black is the New White!" I borrow the last phrase from the title of a book written in 2007 by a true trailblazer, Paul Mooney, an openly gay Black comedian, cultural critic and writer who penned material for Richard Pryor, among others. In Paul Mooney, the painting, the writer-comedian-activist is represented by a firecracker burst and a brown hand that signals a greeting with its thumb and forefinger touching to create a circle. A greeting of OK? A sexual signal? Something else? It all fits.
All paintings beg to be read as objects. They are produced with a CNC milling machine that has been adapted to paint, and then completed by hand. Scrutinize their inky black surfaces and the tool paths of the customized painting machine are immediately visible. Surfaces are uniformly covered with black paint, but they retain the repetitive vertical scanning marks of mechanical application. (This information drops out of the picture when viewing the paintings online.) Likewise, with the emojis, the CNC machine technology is evident in the production: it delivers a fuzzy, air-brushed-looking image. In contrast to their crisp, purely digital cousins, always viewed against an illuminated background, the slightly blurry emojis look as if they are beginning to lose their energy and dissipate into the darkness of the black canvas. One imagines it's these effects that trigger the salvage operation—the intervention of the hand. Adams paints into the emojis, ratifying and brightening their forms, giving them greater substance, making them glow.
Lurking in the technical details of these paintings, in the nuances of surface and line and paint, in the undercurrents of the work, in the emojis themselves, the potential for another type of portrait eases into view, one that points in the direction of the increasing dominance of technology, living vicariously through the screen, the unruly frontier of social media and the internet, the hate and racism engendered there—and our seeming obliviousness to it all.