His large-scale paintings, called “Floaters,” portray Black people lounging on vibrant pool inflatables, cocktails in hand; his “Funtime Unicorns” sculptures turn Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens into an unexpected playground where black unicorns modeled after classic spring rider toys spread joy; and his “Live and In Color” collection features works within a hand-constructed, cardboard vintage television set—figures emerging within a plane of color bars. Derrick Adams has been creating work around the idea that Black joy, love and play should be normalized and celebrated in popular visual culture for decades. His practice spans painting, collage, sculpture, performance, drawing and video that juxtapose bold colors, highly animated figures, playful compositions and radical messaging that is surreptitiously empowering.
His latest exhibition at Rhona Hoffman gallery, titled “…and friends,” as a reference to a range of early educational TV programming usually meant to teach compassion and friendship, features paintings showcasing a Black child with a puppet. Adams reflects on the inflated, abstracted nature of contemporary American and African American reality as seen through television and media—their influence takes center stage whether concealed or unapologetically in-your-face. Much like “Live and in Color,” the paintings are framed in a custom rounded-corner box topped with a vintage rabbit-ear antenna, directly referencing an old-school TV set. Just like that, the viewing experience extends to a different level. Interesting questions arise and the viewer is urged to look beyond the surface. Issues such as representation of diversity in the media, awareness of white privilege and cancel culture are up for discussion.
The term “woke” has found its way into mainstream vocabulary—and in Adams’ work—however unsure many are still about the meaning behind it. Is being aware or well-informed in a political or cultural sense, especially regarding issues surrounding marginalized communities, enough to consider yourself “woken up” and ready to take to the battle against social injustice? Per Merriam-Webster: “Stay woke became a watch word in parts of the Black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better.” Looking at Adams’ work from that perspective explains a lot. Humor, joy, resistance, empowerment—they all come into play if one looks hard enough. As the artist keeps exploring and celebrating the complexities of Black life and culture in America, he continues to bring important cultural and sociopolitical issues to the foreground.
His characters appear joyous and comfortable. His ensembles feature wide smiles and caring hugs depicting happy moments of play, recreation and leisure. People and puppets blissfully hang out while above their heads hover some of the buzzwords of our time: them, cancel, flex, mood, fluid, woke, race, high, attitude, listen. All appear in multicolored letters bringing to mind kids writing with crayons.
A larger-than-life sculpture featuring a giant red, white and blue Bomb Pop is big enough for more than one person to sit on. One might contemplate doing it, but the way it lies on the floor feels inviting. Once you take a seat, the white cube gallery becomes intimate and warm—akin to watching television at an extravagant friend’s extra minimalist living room. Maybe the best way to experience the brightly colored paintings is from that perspective.
Adams’ latest body of work (much like the ones before it) falls again into the category of “needed now more than ever.” Portraying Blackness in an unapologetic, fun and seemingly easily digestible way, is equal parts illuminating and subversive. Importantly, it provides a space where Black voices feel comfortable thinking, speaking and creating out loud. There, they are empowered to dream, reframe and reimagine their—and our—world.
Derrick Adams “…and friends” is on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 1711 West Chicago. Through April 11.