by Sukanya DebMay 01, 2023
What happens when a celebrated architect and a distinguished painter react to a singular theme, and the works so produced are juxtaposed, put in conversation with each other? David Adjaye and Adam Pendleton did exactly this at Untitled (We are not),at Pace Gallery in Hong Kong. Moving beyond the emotion of euphoria and sheer magic that this environment has created, one discovers the significant narrative that has emerged in this exhibition. The interactions between the works are both at a formal and conceptual plane. While Pendleton’s canvases reference the aesthetics of graffiti, seen through the lens of time, leading to layering and erasure, Adjaye’s marble sculptures echo this through the inherent marks on the stone that he calls “geological writings or lines created by gravity”. Similarly, the geometric perfection of the sculptures evokes a sense of modernistic and mechanised perfection, and the paintings utilises language as material, one that is dense, heavy, and yet plastic.
Both the bodies of work create a sense of wonderment, “dissolving their seamlessness into moments of disjuncture, rift, fracture, chaos, or illegibility, offering opacity where we expect transparency, discontinuity where we expect monumentality, uselessness where we expect function”.
I interview Oliver Shultz, Curatorial Director of the exhibition, on the side-lines of the ongoing show at Pace Gallery.
Rahul Kumar (RK): The architecture of David Adjaye often carries a sense of fluidity, an indefiniteness – for instance the blurring boundaries of the inside and the outside at Museum of Contemporary Art (Denver) and Aishti Foundation galleries that marry conflicting experiences of viewing and buying art. Is the use of opaque material and rigid forms in his recent sculptures then a contrast to these ideologies?
Oliver Shultz (OS): While fluidity and transparency are key strategies in David Adjaye’s approach to architecture, they are often balanced or interrupted by moments of blockage or opacity, places where access is disrupted, vision screened, and passage becomes nonlinear. David’s sculptures are not dissimilar, in that they are also dialectical in nature: they subvert the solidity and rigidity of a material like marble, as well as the singularity and monumentality of a form such as the pyramid, by revealing the softness of stone in the face of time’s tectonic forces (and indeed human presence). Time has worked the stone, as have the modern cutting blades that shaped it; and beyond that, the final form of the sculptures themselves can also be re-organised and re-arranged in more than a single formal configuration.
A sculpture like Khufu (2021), for example, may actually be installed either in its primary form as a pyramid, or it can invert outward, taking another shape altogether, where it frames its original gestalt as a kind of negative space. In this secondary configuration, the individually-cut modules of jet-black marble, vividly shot through with contrasting white veins - opens onto a void at its interior, becoming the frame of an emptiness that is actually a kind of plenitude. I think this lexicon of formal inversion and subversion, what’s really a kind of refusal to exist in only a single state, captures a sense of how Adjaye approaches aesthetics and the cultural sphere: as a field of mutability and openness, of re-working, refashioning, re-formation.
This also has to do with the way David’s works can be read as minimal forms or they can be understood with reference to specific histories, here, the particular history of ancient African architecture, which is also a kind of “world history”. Khufu is titled after the Egyptian Old Kingdom pharaoh, more commonly anglicized as “Cheops,” who is understood to have commissioned the Great Pyramid of Giza. Using a material so rich with art-historical resonance like marble, David is further traversing and blurring borders, collapsing the space between the disciplines of art and architecture, culture and history, singularity and multiplicity. David’s understanding of the veins in the marble as a kind of “geologic writing” or readymade mark-making is, in so many ways, an expansion of the approaches to materiality that he has pioneered throughout his career. Sculpture offers new territories and new possibilities, new ways of linking the most ancient and the most contemporary.
RK: Adam Pendleton has said, “We are fighting to exist through abstraction”. How does this idea come together in his work at this exhibit?
OS: It might be said that the idea of “fighting to exist through abstraction” has always been central to Adam’s practice, not least in the way his works seize upon opacity or illegibility as aesthetic strategies, not just of expression, but of a kind of resistance. The urgency in Adam’s work is connected to a certain refusal, what you point to as the “not” of “We are Not” in his paintings, which is a refusal of transparency but also of meaning itself, which has to do with what Adam has referred to as “Black Dada”.
Abstraction, in Adam’s work, is vital not least in that it sets into motion of a kind of knowledge that requires both unknowing and unknowability. It suggests that the very systems of knowledge and classification, indeed language itself, are always-already implicated or tied-up with insidious dynamics of power and oppression. To be abstract, then, might offer some recourse a certain toolkit of resistance, marking aesthetic experience, language, and culture writ large as theatres of operations. I think about Adam’s work as invested in the idea of throwing a wrench into the gears of representation as a system, into the way that language operates to structure what can be thought and what can be imagined.
The repetition of this one written phrase in Adam’s paintings, “We are Not”, becomes like the repetition of the three-dimensional pyramid form in Adajye’s sculptures, basic building-blocks for a large system, but at the same time a way of mobilising beauty as a weapon, which takes the form of abstraction. Dissolving words from signification, allowing them to melt into a field of formal resonance that takes on a whole new and radical set of possibilities precisely by being liberated from the hegemony of meaning, that is where possibility lies. That whole process one might identify as resisting or existing through abstraction, and it is a process that has historically determined not just who wield and holds power, but who has the right to constitute themselves as a subject in the first place.
RK: How in your opinion do the two bodies of work interact with each other? Adjaye presents “geological writings” in his stone sculptures with a smooth surface, and Pendleton’s paintings reference wall graffiti with a textured surface.
OS: The interaction between Pendleton’s paintings and Adajye’s sculptures is simultaneously conceptual and formal. Both bodies of work deal with the way that time becomes a kind of generative language, articulating form as abstraction. For Pendleton, this has to do with the aesthetics of graffiti accumulating and being erased again and again, but also the fading of frescos until the image becomes all but illegible. Time is both a corrosive and an accumulative force, both sedimentary and eroding, compressing and expanding. That echoes the way Adjaye talks about the veins in his marble sculptures as “geological writings” or lines created by gravity. These marble surfaces are in active visual dialogue with the dense textures of Pendleton’s paintings. Meanwhile the precise and geometric perfection of Adjaye’s sculptures suggest the aesthetics of acceleration, of modernity and mechanisation, in opposition to the geological time of the expressionistic veins in the marble. A similar tension is present in Pendelton’s paintings, where language has plasticity and materiality—weight and density, even as its meaning dissolves.
RK: Please elaborate on the idea of 'tension between the individual and the collective' addressed by the artists in this exhibit.
OS: Pendleton’s work has often interrogated the very concept of “we”, a notion often taken for granted, pointing toward language itself as a kind of abstraction. It’s through this abstraction that we imagine ourselves as a collective. Architecture is closely linked to the idea of forging collective existence. By definition, architectures are shared spaces that presuppose a kind of collectively: we inhabit or move through them together. The works of Pendleton and Adjaye highlight how architecture orchestrates our shared existence, lending it significance and signification, much in the way language does, while at the same time obscuring its own intrinsic structures of power. The works in the exhibition explore how disrupting this transparency or legibility might be central to the question of politics.
RK: How do the works by Adjaye and Pendleton create a dialogue on the common concerns of politics of space and representation, while exploring questions of identity and monumentality?
OS: Both Pendleton and Adjaye have explored abstraction as a tool for critically engaging with questions of identity. In Adam’s work, this has often been linked to what he has called a “perversion” or “corruption” of language and its underlying legibility: using words precisely to frustrate their meanings. A similar dialectic informs Adjaye’s new sculptures in the sense that they cohere as singular objects (pyramids, which Adjaye calls the “primary form” of the work), while also “dis-aggregating” into individual smaller forms (triangles), which then become seats, functional objects for gathering, community, collectively. Language has a similarly dualistic power: it can cohere but also disaggregate, it can bring us together but can also push us apart. Insofar as Adjaye exhibits his sculptures in the primary form of pyramids, his work seems to be asking us to consider the stakes of this power of universality, a kind of basic human belonging rooted in the elemental nature of abstraction. Yet at the same time, both he and Adam are exploring a space that is suspended between the universal and the culturally specific, just like the pyramid is both an abstract form, on the one hand, and a shape connected to the history of African architecture, on the other.
RK: How did the title of the show come about – Untitled (We are not)?
OS: The title of the show derives from the Pendleton’s series of paintings by the same name, but what it points to is how both David’s and Adam’s works both turn on a certain opaqueness or refusal: the ‘not’ of the title. Even as they offer us total systems, they also ‘disaggregate’, dissolving their seamlessness into moments of disjuncture, rift, fracture, chaos, or illegibility, offering opacity where we expect transparency, discontinuity where we expect monumentality, uselessness where we expect function. Those moments have real political possibility precisely because of the stakes of refusal—they work because they are as obstinate as stone. In that way, both Adam’s and David’s works are very much concerned with opening us onto new possibilities for living together on a planet that ultimately, we must share, even if, in the end, the very idea of this “we” is just a fiction or story that we tell ourselves.