More like a single installation than the individual works of two millennial artists, the primary concept of “Blue Collar” appears to be “Hurrah for blue-collar creativity!” A large, functioning workstation with power tools is at the center, and two sets of work clothes hang from a wall to the left. To the right, two walls are covered with notes, sketches, poems and proposals by each of the artists. Cleveland Dean and Anthony Adcock are obviously thoughtful young men who don’t mind getting their hands dirty in the tool shop. Some of their work leans against a wall, as if works in progress. A few freestanding sculptures of iron or wood sit in the middle of the room. Flatter pieces are hung across the gallery walls, alternating one artist with the other to invite comparison—and the comparison is fascinating.
Adcock imitates surfaces with such amazing skill that it’s impossible to distinguish the original from his copy. Absolutely every surface in the gallery could be an Anthony Adcock painting—from the polished oak flooring, to the notes written on scraps of paper, to the white gallery wall upon which those notes are tacked. Since he also paints the surfaces of cast resin, it’s quite possible that any dripping can of paint or banged-up screwdriver on the workbench might be one of his patinated sculptures—as might be the grimy workbench. The inability to distinguish reality from illusion produces no small anxiety about losing my mind.
Rather than imitate weathered surfaces, Dean builds and weathers them himself. In one piece, he applies acrylic, resin, aerosol paint, concrete, ajax, metal, manipulated paint thinner and polyurethane to burned, distressed wood. The resulting panels might provide a refreshing, decorative contrast to the smooth walls of a modern, white cube apartment. “My goal is to simply recondition people to think, adhere to knowledge and broaden their experience,” the artist puts it. The dreadful, burned-out quality of his pieces recalls the sculpture of black-identity artists like Theaster Gates and Leonardo Drew.
The personal stories of the artists are inspiring. Like his father before him, Adcock joined the Iron Workers Union right after high school, and would still be tying rebar except that he became fascinated by painting. He studied representational techniques at the American Academy, then got a scholarship to earn his conceptual bona fides at the University of Chicago. Dean began making art for his own walls and launched a career when he discovered that other people liked what he was doing. He is almost entirely self-taught, as a visual artist and as a poet and philosopher. His terse, spiritual and erotic poetry is interesting when you locate it on the cluttered wall.
The visual quality of the individual artworks, however, is not more interesting than all those weathered, scorched or crumbling surfaces that you encounter when walking down any alley in the city. If these artists were trying to avoid formal tension and visual pleasure, they have succeeded. A partial exception is Adcock’s “Self-Portrait (working in the pit),” a figurative oil painting in the naturalistic, luminescent manner of fifteenth-century Flemish masters like Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden. A portion has been submerged in a bucket of black dirt.
Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), conceptual artists have presented their ideas by re-contextualizing the work of other artists or manufacturers. Adcock has not only made this traditional oil painting himself, he has done it exceptionally well (judging from the part that can be seen). After pulling it out of the bucket and brushing off the dirt, it might be among the best contemporary portrait paintings in Chicago, if not the country. And it depicts his own face! What an extraordinary and sad act of self renunciation—of both personal identity and world-class talent.
Both of these artists have been presented as thinkers as well as fabricators. Their mastery of materials and manual dexterity is indisputable. But they might reconsider exactly how the world benefits by hiding things that are beautiful and hopeful—while promulgating things that evidence only neglect, decay or despair. (Chris Miller)
“Blue Collar” is on view at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 West Chicago Avenue, through October 6.