Adam Putnam: Untitled (Interior Shadow III), 2013, black-and-white photograph, 40 by 30 inches; at P.P.O.W.

Adam Putnam examines the social and aesthetic dimensions of human bodies, often by pushing the physical limits of his own. In the past he has suspended himself by chains in the gallery and squeezed himself into a cabinet, gestures that recall the endurance spectacles of early performance art. Though the artist was not physically present in his latest show, the sculptures, videos, photographs and drawings on view all implied the body and prompted sprawling meditations on life and death, creation and destruction. Each object ached for subjective engagement, for the unifying and decomposing force of flesh to communicate its meaning. 

Arch (eclipse), 2014, a pair of tombstone-shaped mirrors, created a miniature reflective maze. Precisely positioned so that they cast light and shadow upon the gallery wall, the knee-height mirrors refracted and doubled our reflections, stealing, if even for a moment, the unity of our bodies. The work felt like a somber carnival where the viewer perceived himself within a purgatory of distortion. As in many of his earlier works, Putnam used shadows, here cast by a nearby lightbulb that was part of the installation, as a kind of medium, engendering a feeling of simultaneous presence and immateriality. This macabre yet strangely playful mise-en-scène was echoed in Putnam’s video installation The End (2014), in which flamboyantly colored filters placed over the camera lens lend a poignant joy to flickering, short-lived images of stark, minimalist sculptures and stagelike architectonic structures. 

Putnam’s sculptures and drawings evoke historical attempts to contend with the afterlife. A quiet, untitled drawing of brick archways from 2012 resembles, in its overwhelming emptiness, the tragic ethos of Anselm Kiefer’s Sulamith (1983), a painting that, in turn, recalls the crematoria of the Holocaust. Torture is often evoked in Putnam’s work, in more or less subtle ways; his sculpture Contraption 1 (2014), an apparatus of wood beams held together with metal bands, positioned in the center of the gallery amid a handful of similar works, could be a homemade crucifix, a symbol of agony and regenerative sacrifice. 

On the walls hung a group of black-and-white photographs, including one untitled image from 2013 that depicted what could be a makeshift Halloween ghost, a human figure whose face is obscured by a loose white sheet. This work was rephotographed from an earlier print that Putnam had apparently left lying around his studio, allowing dust to accumulate in the interim. Like skin, Putnam’s photographs are brimming with growth even as they suggest decay and obsolescence. The photographed dust, dotting the prints like the dissolved metals of the silver gelatin process or like liver spots, emphasizes the materiality of the photograph. Marilyn Minter, likewise, uses glass and beads of water as distancing elements that, as with Putnam’s dust, add a level of tactility to her paintings of photographs. What results for both Minter and Putnam is an image that is as complex and multilayered as the bodies to which they allude—a celebration of life and an awareness of its conclusion.