Derrick Adams’s exhibition here, “Interior Life,” evokes a comfortable bourgeois dwelling. With the exception of Adams’s portraits from his ongoing series “Deconstruction Worker,” 2011–, all of this brownstone’s congenial appointments—sleek modernist furniture, elegant vases, stainless-steel appliances—are mere wallpaper, graphic representations of the good life, which are delineated into specific areas of a home. In the family parlor (that is, the first gallery), three portraits of anonymous sitters hang above a mantelpiece and a sculpture of a Black Power salute. Elsewhere, soul food recipes are pasted on a kitchen wall, and in the bathroom, a mask peeks out from behind a Malian mud-cloth shower curtain. There are catalogues on a shelf for landmark shows, among them Kongo: Power and Majesty (2015) and Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art (1994–95). Depictions of African art, such as ceremonial masks and power figures—magical sculptures that can keep colonialist evils at bay, among other things—are collaged with eyes cut out from photos of famous black figures. On a television is the title card of a popular 1970s sitcom. If you read the name, WHAT’S HAPPENING!!, as a question posed to the viewer, then the happy salutation becomes something more complex and disquieting—a cry against this ugly and precarious political environment in the United States, in which the rich culture Adams’s work draws upon is once again threatened.
The models for the portraits are in profile, their skin a faceted spectrum of tones. One could see a span of references in these pieces, from the intricate patchwork of the Gee’s Bend quilts to the racist physiognomy charts of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. But Adams’s “Deconstruction Worker” pieces—stoic, tender, resplendent in gorgeous fabric—have always embodied their own form of strength and majesty. Poet Elizabeth Alexander once wrote that the “black interior” is “a space for tableau or retablo, with its connotations of the sacred. The living room is where we see black imagination made visual, a private space that inevitably reverberates against the garish public images usually out of our control.” Here, one encounters this radiant source.