Modernism’s alchemical transubstantiation of trash into treasure was performed as early as a century ago, with the “invention” of papier collé by Braque and Picasso, and of the readymade by Duchamp, but it never grows old. China Adams’s recent show, “White Flags and Silent Chimes,” was made entirely of the accumulated wastepaper that forms drifts on one’s desk (or in one’s studio) before finding its way to the recycling bin.
A receipt for an oil change, an advertisement for housecleaning services and a Thai takeout menu are among thousands of documents, solicitations and ads repurposed by Adams into exquisite, fragile banners (suspended from the ceiling) and “chimes” (formed of pieces of paper rolled into tight tubes and hung in rows). Much of the printed matter was whitewashed with acrylic paint before being cut into the scallops, scales or strips of which the patterned surfaces are composed. Shreds of full-color advertisements provided jewel-like accents. Otherwise camouflaged within the white-walled gallery, these paper flags and chimes would have made for a spare installation if not for the riot of detail—the fragments of limited-time offers, lunch specials and amounts due upon receipt—apparent on close inspection.
Ultimately, these bits of data contributed to a kind of auto-representation. Throughout her career, Adams has used her own body and accumulated possessions as source material for art, and her take on trash is personal too. A careful observer could discover the artist’s address, her initialized agreement to the terms of a money-management contract and perhaps other revelatory information. Each object in the show limns the artist herself; each is a kind of profile generated by the geographic, socioeconomic and gender-based metrics of mass marketing and consumer habits.
Adams also puts forward larger art historical and social themes. Her obsessive, time-consuming cutting and pasting is evocative of feminist craft techniques, as is her emphasis on inexpensive, anti-monumental materials. And given the title of the exhibition, another reference point inevitably comes to mind—Jasper Johns’s breakthrough 1955 White Flag, in which newspaper articles and advertisements are obscured but legible under layers of pigment and wax. Producing this landmark work at the peak of the McCarthy era, Johns surely meant to say something about censorship and the suppression of identity with his monochrome American flag. Adams’s own signal of surrender (and perhaps of muteness, as suggested by “silent chimes”), is likewise broadly suggestive of her context, in which endemic consumerism has run up against an ailing economy. But her fragile, tentative flags and chimes are open and unmoralizing—beautiful handicraft, self-portraiture, social document and trash all at once.
Photo: View of China Adams’s exhibition, showing Chime #2 (foreground), 2009, recycled mailing tubes and mixed mediums, 33 by 311⁄2 by 2 inches; at Steve Turner.