Close Up & Personal: A Conversation with Gregory Adamson and 18th Century Gold Boxes From the Rosalinde & Arthur Gilbert Collectio at LACMA
September 6, 2014-March 1, 2015
The selection of 28 snuffboxes drawn from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection has been touted by the museum as a strong example of “captivating detail and astonishing craftsmanship” with “eternal appeal.” Ranging from jewel-encrusted and ornate to smoothly painted and monochromatic, the boxes certainly function as markers of their previous owners’ social status. Whether pulled from a pocket or tossed upon a table, snuffboxes during the eighteenth century were luxury accessories both because of the expensive powder they held within, as well for as the meticulous ornamentation that marked them without.
In visiting the exhibit, it is striking how easily one could pass by without knowing it existed. Sandwiched between antiquities from Egypt on the one side and European paintings from the seventeenth century on the other, “Close-Up & Personal” gives visitors little overt invitation to notice much less interact with its contents as they walk among noticeably grander pieces.
Yet when visitors do take the opportunity to stop in the passageway housing the exhibit, and when they pick up the available magnifying glasses to examine these priceless objects of personal and household ornamentation, they will find that the boxes prove magnificent. Their meticulous detail and luxurious material raise questions about the lines dividing objects of functional design from objet d’art. For me, these questions were best explored in the company of Gregory Adamson, an artist specializing in large-scale, live-action portrait painting.
Miranda Nesler: Greg, I’m so glad you could join me. When we first discussed the possibility of working together, I doubt this was the kind of exhibit you anticipated! But for me, there was something about the contrast between the scale of work like this compared to yours that seemed beneficial. I’m hoping the juxtaposition helps us to see new things.
Gregory Adamson: I’m happy to be here, and thank you for inviting me to participate in your project.
MGN: As an artist walking into an exhibit like this one, what first comes to your mind?
GA: A fascination with how someone creates a piece like this. Just look at the detail here. [gestures with magnifier to a snuffbox with hunt scenes, c. 1777 (L.2014.6.4)].
MGN: So you’re immediately curious about the practical and productive side of the pieces—drawn to questions about creative origin?
GA: Definitely. It’s in part because knowledge of what it takes to create something like this is a bit out of my lane—I’m a painter dealing with large canvasses. But I’ve also always been a bit interested in craftsmanship and DIY projects, so I have some sense of the intricacy and fine detail that goes into a piece like this. The brushes could only have, probably, one or two fine hairs. Whoever made them would have had to use magnification.
MGN: Glass making would have come far enough by the eighteenth century. They would have had access to those tools. You look fascinated by that piece now [Turns to Basket Shaped Snuffbox, c. 1775 (L.2014.6.25)].
GA: I am. It has such amazing depth and texture to it, especially under the magnifying glass. You can see the ones with painted figures like this and wonder: did the same artist who painted these images also do the jewelry work or box making? How many artisans were working together?
MGN: It’s interesting, the question of individual artist versus collaborative group. I’m also intrigued by your use of the word “artisans” versus “artists.” When you look at work like this—as a collection or in individual pieces—where do you place it when you consider categories of “fine arts” versus “crafts” versus “functional objects”?
GA: With these particular boxes, there’s a marriage happening between functionality and fine arts. “Fine art” is a difficult term for me, particularly since people seem to have their own definitions. The more academic people are about viewing art, coming from an institutional or academic setting, for example, I think the more esoteric are their requirements for something to reach the level of fine art. On the other hand, some of the “less refined” among us, all the way down to the larger groups who count Thomas Kinkade as art, might have different requirements. What troubles me is who makes that call and what characterizes that person’s exposure to art. Your definition of “fine art” will be determined by your level and breadth of exposure. Some people will operate in a simpler or narrower range than people who have spent time to educate themselves. But, then again, does that mean that the people with more exposure or more knowledge have better taste? Does that mean that those people should be able to make those determinations?
MGN: To this, I think, we can add questions like “what constitutes more exposure?” Someone academic might have greater exposure to a narrower number of styles, whereas someone with exposure to classical arts as well as street art or pop art might count as more “educated” because of breadth.
GA: When you’ve spent time educating yourself in any way, you can find similarities and repetitions across media and styles. It also starts to skew your sensibilities and build categories regarding what fits and what doesn’t. You start to say, “this isn’t art to me.” For me, I look at fine art from the standpoint of how complete the design is. Does it show unity, balance, dominance—participation in all of those features of design? How does it utilize tools like line, shape, color, or texture in its creation? Where does it fit in craftsmanship versus art, with craft being about execution while art functions as an idea. When you have someone only with great skill in execution, you have a craftsman; when you add to that an idea, something new and innovative at its root, that’s when, for me, you start to reach fine art.
MGN: That connects to one of your first comments about these boxes being a marriage of functionality and fine art. Someone else might say, academically, that fine art is defined by a certain kind of medium or execution within that traditional, recognizable medium. For you, it sounds like something that predates media in the sense that there’s a root idea that draws on but develops beyond tradition. But that idea isn’t enough, and there has to be excellence in physical execution. You have to have physical training and knowledge that reaches beyond the academic.
GA: Yes. Although nothing’s ever black and white, because you can have something created by someone with no training or education, but that work shows an incredible imagination and has an idea. Sometimes the raw and the primitive can be stunning. It can defy expectation in a jarring way and, with that kind of honesty, it can draw you to the idea so you have a physical or emotional reaction. Sometimes these surprise me the most because they give me something I’ve never seen before. One of my art mentors looks for something he hasn’t seen before, whether in his own work or in someone else’s. Another of my mentors says that good art provides beauty and truth. But that raises the question of whether fine art or important art can be ugly, or whether it can cover truth.
MGN: So then viewer perception comes into play. Truth might be truth, but ideals of beauty can be publically shaped or shift over time. Linking this idea to boxes like these, how do you see art being performative or public in crucial ways? What role does public versus private play in your art compared to some of the pieces we see here?
GA: My art is all about the public because, as much as I can, I paint in front of the public. But art isn’t necessarily public. It can be something you can create without a thought to discovery. There have been circumstances where someone has created alone and placed that work away; then, years later, we discover it and appreciate the artistic value of ideas and execution even though it hadn’t been intended for us.
MGN: At what point are those pieces art? Is it art when it was tucked away in secret? Or does it transform to art when someone sees it, values it, and then uses the term “art”?
GA: If a tree falls in a forest…
MGN: It’s relevant to an exhibit like this. To what extent would someone commissioned to make a snuffbox like this see it as art?
GA: Oh, they definitely would. Each of these boxes conveys deeper ideas—about class, identity, political stature, relationships. They draw on older traditions or styles to say something new. There are those root concepts that tie the boxes to meaning just like any “fine art” like oil painting or sculpture. These artists had to feel every bit as attached to their work as I feel to mine. Look at how meticulous it is. When you create something with so much care, you put your heart, and soul, and mind into it. You’re giving birth, and it’s coming from inside your brain and as a product of your hands; by the time you finish, you have so much emotional and physical energy tied up in it. It’s part of you. For me, when I get invited to deliver paintings from events, or when I get invited to the homes of people who purchased my work, it’s exciting to see where it is. It’s like visiting one of my kids. It’s a sense of joy to visit.
MGN: Does it ever surprise you to see the circumstances of how the paintings are hung or how they’re displayed?
GA: It does. It always surprises me who the people are, why they chose the piece, where they want it to go. I’m surprised by the places; some are big, stunning estates, and some are condos. Some people say, “I’d love to have that, but I don’t have a wall big enough.” Some people say, “I will make the wall space, even if it becomes the wall.” Where the piece goes is all part of a statement people are trying to make. It can be a very big statement. It can be a love of my work, it can be a love of the subject. The painting can make that statement for them.
MGN: So for you, given your experience, these boxes aren’t just examples of craftsmen responding to an order. And they’re not “just” functional pieces of design. These are pieces of art created by artists?
GA: Certainly. Each one of these, even the ones that look similar or participate in a style, shows the individual sensibilities of its creator. Take this one here --- oh, I really like this one – it shows this lone rider on a horse, and it’s so classical. But look at the color. That’s bold. That sets it apart. Judicious use of color makes it important, and the artist knows this. And the tremendous depth achieved in so little color shows mastery. And look at this one; this one makes my eyes bleed. It’s such an ambitious scene, especially in that tiny scale. With the magnifier they’re just amazing. [Examines Bonbonnière with Peter the Great, c. 1782 (L.2014.6.31)].
MGN: Circling back to the public question, I think the issue of the magnifier is important to point out. Most of the people who would have experienced these in their own time wouldn’t have had a magnifier. For them, the boxes would be pulled out of pockets or tossed onto tables. The artist magnified, and we do, but that changes things. Walking through this exhibit, how do you see that issue of context coming into play?
GA: If someone had that in her home on a coffee table, I’d glance. I’d maybe pick it up and admire it. But would I consider it art? Would I realize its historical or economic value? Probably not. The goal of a curator or a museum is to guide us toward that understanding. But it’s also what they find valuable or want to convince us is valuable.
MGN: This brings us again back to perception and the roles of contexts like time and space. How does a piece’s origin in a further past, or how does its placement in a certain space, affect whether we view it as “art”?
GA: Recently Bansky did an exhibit in New York, and people were paying millions for his work; but he also had some street side pop-ups where smaller pieces of his original work were being sold at low prices, around $10. People were just walking by. It’s brilliant. It’s similar to when you hear of a world-class musician playing concertos in a mass transit station; a man who people pay hundreds to see at Carnegie is playing a Stratovarius, and people walk by ignoring it or tossing change into his violin case because it’s out of context.
MGN: Clearly the curators believe these boxes are important, whether as art or artifact, since they are displaying them at LACMA. On the small scale, the exhibit helps us to appreciate the boxes themselves for their individual detail. What about the larger scale? How does the exhibit’s placement in the museum itself affect our view? We have oil paintings from Europe on one side, and antiquities from Africa on the other.
GA: It’s oddly sandwiched. Time-wise on one side things seem connected. On the other? I don’t know if they’re trying to tell us something with the gap. Maybe they had no other space? Maybe they had space to fill? Honestly, if we hadn’t been meeting here, I wouldn’t have stopped or spent time here. It’s not really in my line; and the scale of these pieces with such limited markers allows you to walk right by. It’s a shame since the workmanship, and value, and beauty of them is very real. I would’ve gone straight to the Rembrandt right there.
MGN: It is more obviously in line with the work you do.
GA: Yes. With these, though…I’m always fascinated by people who create tiny, minute things, and about the processes they use. Why do people do it?
MGN: So what led you to doing large-scale work? How do you balance the commercial and the commissioned with the artistic desire you have?
GA: I can’t sit and tickle something. I actually can’t sit at all when I paint. I need something with a lot of physical movement and energy in it – in the process and the subject. I want the speed and movement of it.
MGN: You were talking about how the craftsmen and artists of the boxes probably had a relationship to their work that resembles yours. And I think it’s striking that just like they encountered their work as functional, moveable art that was worn and used, you’re considering yours that way when you think of its production or you show interest in the places where it’s displayed. It’s not just a large painting on a wall. It also lives, moves, breathes, communicates about more than you. These pieces and yours let the artists and the owners speak. The boxes are the opposite scale, but they’re tied to your work despite that. It seems to muddy the line between simply “functional design” and “fine art.”
GA: It’s a hard line to draw.
MGN: One that won’t be drawn today, I don’t think! I’m so glad to have had a chance to try, though—and gladder that the conversation resulted in muddier waters rather than clear-cut answers. Thank you so much for joining me.
Gregory Adamson is a renowned Southern California artist who has gained domestic and international acclaim for his fast-paced performance art, in which he paints to music with bare hands or brushes, creating huge masterpieces in just minutes. His subject matter includes historical leaders, sports legends, music icons and other celebrities of pop culture. He has taken his ‘Facing the Music’ performance art from coast to coast and abroad, performing at concerts with major recording artists, and at regional and national political events. For more information, please visit: http://gregoryadamson.com/about/
“Close-Up & Personal: 18th Century Gold Boxes From the Rosalinde & Arthur Gilbert Collection” will be on display at LACMA from September 6, 2014-March 1, 2015. For more information, visit: LACMA