The Evolving Zen of Artist Adam Siegel
By GINNY VAN ALYEA
Entering the expansive Golden Triangle on a sunny fall morning, I was struck not only by the abundance of exotic antiques from far-flung reaches of the globe but also by a pair of contemporary, large–scale paintings flanking the showroom entrance. The patinaed antiques were typical examples of the historic objects the Golden Triangle is known for sourcing from around the world, but they were enhanced by the relatable juxtaposition of old and new art. I was curious to learn more about the paintings as well as how so many of them, as I would soon see, came to be in this unique space. The long story of decades of technical experiments and evolving philosophies would come from the very talkative artist Adam Siegel, and Doug Van Tress, co-owner of the Golden Triangle. Following is a transcript of our interview from October 2017. –GV
CGN/Ginny: So how did this partnership come to be? Adam, I see so many of your new works installed throughout the Golden Triangle. There must be 30.
Adam Siegel: Doug Van Tress and I have been kind of watching each other – culturally – from a distance for a while. When I started working with my publicist, Jill Maremont, who is the founder of the River North Design District, she launched this idea of embedding artists into the design district with an annual Gallery Walk event. She suggested a partnership for me with Doug and The Golden Triangle and said that I should first bring a few paintings over to show Doug. And I’m like, ‘That sounds incredible.’
I don’t do anything in a small way, and I’ve never really had to work in an environment where someone told me I couldn’t do something. When someone gives me an opportunity I just go at it, 100%. I showed up at Doug’s in 2016 with a semi-truck, initially with 26 paintings, I was supposed to have six, and they were just supposed to be kind of leaning, for instance, in the foyer. It was all going to be smaller and no one was going to have to move anything. That is what they anticipated.
CGN: But you thought, ‘I know Doug has this huge space with all these rooms.’
Adam: Right! And he has no clue that I’m just thinking, ‘This is amazing.’
Doug Van Tress: Adam came with some very big paintings.
Adam: But Doug just said, ‘I like it.’ And I told them there were a lot more. Next, Chauwarin Tuntisak, Doug’s partner here [at Golden Triangle], says, ‘Okay, bring another.’ Finally, after five works, he just said, ‘Okay Adam, just empty the truck. I’m not going to look. I’m going to walk away and just do it.’ So, for our first show I ended up bringing another four or five paintings in, and it was kind of by the seat of our pants. That night we almost sold out the show.
CGN: So, now you’re into your second year of partnership.
Adam: Yes, this show ends in March 2018. When we started this exhibition, just knowing that I was going to show here again allowed me to start developing the Wabi Sabi Series, which is a series that takes an enormous amount of time to put together and develop. They’re designed to look like they just kind of floated together somehow, but the background that nobody will ever know is that I spent years in my studio investigating materials and technologies to marry this kind of historical and modern sensibility. This happens to be one of the elements that makes this work so compelling in setting for me. You can walk in and see a 200 year-old mask, or a 18th century European lamp, and then my contemporary paintings; it’s the classical and contemporary fused together and, ironically, that’s what’s happening in my studio.
This partnership has afforded me this ambitious vision to come in here and take control. Once again, I came in and Doug and Chauwarin said, ‘Okay, Adam, let it happen.’
Doug: We definitely don’t just lie on our backs here. We seek things out for the space. We travel the world seeking beauty and see a lot of amazing art but we just really relate to Adam’s work.
Adam: There’s a conversation. I sat down with them and I said, “You know, I think what makes this potentially compelling to the world is that we’re so used to having these platforms for what a gallery showing is. You walk in, you look at the four walls, you see the paintings, you get a reading of that, and that’s your experience. We tend to associate the art now with that measure of experience. That’s the archetype of how we see art in the city.
Doug: And there may be a statement from the artist or gallerist, who tries to fluff up what you’re looking at.
Adam: Right, which usually takes longer than looking at the art.
Doug: Don’t get the wrong idea, but it’s lame.
Adam: You go to museums and people are just reading everything. I grew up in Chicago when the Museum of Contemporary Art was first a very adventurous institution. One of their original shows was called the Paper Show, you’d walk into the institution and everybody wore paper slippers, there were glass hallways, you’d walk above things, things were made out of paper. This city and its perspective of art is very organic, and my feeling was that to bring my paintings in context to a space like this, they have to have sympathetic motifs and origins in terms of using this very contemporary perspective. The understanding is historical, but there’s more relevancy for work that can actually walk both lines at the same time.
Doug: We do have a description posted of the Wabi Sabi series that Adam has produced, so we have word power here too, but mainly the space is the catalogue - you’re walking through it.
Adam: Right, it’s an experience.
Doug: Each room was transformed by a painting.
CGN: Most showrooms don’t have individual rooms. Here, it’s a very real setting that mimics the home.
Adam: I’ve installed many works in private homes, and what I’ve tried to cultivate is this experience of watching rooms being transformed. Typically, clients will say, ‘I like these 4 or 5 paintings. Often, I’ll bring a couple of assistants into their home and we end up hanging 4 or 5 paintings in 10 different locations throughout the house. Coming into the Golden Triangle, I thought, it was like a museum, where each room offers up opportunities for different contextual spaces.
Doug: From our point of view, we love what it does to the rooms. Love it. Now, Adam doesn’t know this, but we’ve been buying contemporary paintings for a long time, but not a lot. I started actively buying oil paintings, mostly very old ones, in 2009. While in France at a show, I saw some stuff that I really liked, mostly from a color point-of-view – very old, blistered, ancient paintings – and I paired them with antiques, and they look great. We had just been playing with art a little bit, but not ever full out. We were not scared to mix some paintings in, but we had no clue that the space would be so transformed by Adam’s work.
CGN: I see a consistency in the rooms; you can see how the antique and the contemporary fit together as well as change each room.
Doug: Customers love it, including designers, but also average buyers – people who probably have some comfort level buying things on their own but when they see it rigged up like this, it makes it even better. So, we were a little bit prepared for the success, but not for this. Adam’s work is very persuasive.
CGN: Well, from the antiques side of things you’ve been in the business for a long time - close to 30 years. You have to evolve.
Doug: If you don’t evolve you end up in the fossil section of the museum.
CGN: I would say that’s part of bringing antiques and their relevance and livability into reality today. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, just antiques or just contemporary.
Doug: This is selfish on my side. I love Adam’s work. I just like it, personally, but when his pieces are next to all my antiques I don’t have to explain that my antiques are relevant to modern life. All they need to do is just walk through. They absorb that message with no words, and that’s what art is. I’m very suspicious of art that needs a lot of words, because that’s literature. If I want literature, I’ll buy a novel. I like art that speaks for itself. Adam’s pieces are very powerful, they speak directly, and they go with our lives.
Adam: In Europe the idea of embedding fine art in high-end retail has been going on for a while –artists know that you can have a showing in a historical place that’s an accepted template. In Paris you can go to some really elite boutiques and there are contemporary artists who are showing work there. That’s something that Europe has picked up on but America is a little bit slower to do thus so far. It’s basically this idea of relevancy, of different mediums talking to each other, for instance fashion and art. This is now what you are seeing at The Golden Triangle.
CGN: People have to be inspired to go see things in person. You need to come up with new ways to do that, and that may mean putting people physically together in a new space, so that they are not alone with a virtual image. You can’t understand the three-dimensional aspect of a setting and the spatial relationship through a screen.
Adam: This is the antithesis of seeing something on your phone. You hit it on the nose. This show is an aggressive invitation to be able to go back and actually see paintings in ways that people used to see in the 16th century, when you’d walk through a church and see a Giotto, and stained glass, and all in the context of an amazing cathedral.
Today, you’d see a hundred people around you, just scrolling away on a screen, or aiming to take the right Instagram photo. How can you really connect with that? People need to be allowed to sit with art and understand its context.
CGN: It’s different to be in a place.
Adam: Things look different at home than in a gallery setting. I tell people, “[This painting] is different in the summer and in the fall. It’s different in the morning, afternoon, and evening. It’s different when there’s humidity out, there are clouds out.’ Paintings that have layers, they’re like living beings. You take something home and all of the sudden it’s a real work of art. It starts creating an environment.
CGN: Tell me what inspired the Wabi-Sabi paintings here.
Adam: For Wabi-Sabi, when I went to Oberlin College, I ended up in a seminary library one evening. I liked this community of people, and they were all going away to Japan the next year. So, I said to myself, ‘That sounds exciting,’ I ended up doing a 6-week Japanese intensive course, and next thing I know, I’m living in Japan for about a year studying at the Waseda University in Tokyo. I became friends with a photography dealer who had a home in Kyoto, and his spouse’s family owned the land that Ryoan-ji temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built on. I became very familiar with what is called exquisite, aesthetic landscapes, and I had the opportunity to rake the Zen garden, which, is one of my life’s greatest honors. I bring it up because for me this piece embodies what it is to be in a Zen temple. The Wabi-sabi philosophical aesthetic is this idea of finding deep resonance and feeling embodied within humble materials. In some ways this work symbolizes the tension that’s in the [Golden Triangle], which is a mixture of both antique and modern. Certain works end up mimicking what’s happening in the rest of this store - contemporary and historical pushed together. Here, in Atlas, you see this whole experience and then all of the sudden your mind starts fighting to acquiesce, what is this grid, how does it all fit together? There is restraint and reverence, here I’m challenging the archetype of the dog.
CGN: This painting in the [Golden Triangle] entryway is of a dog’s head.
Adam: We look at dogs and we’re very familiar with them, but there’s like 25 billion dog paintings out there; it’s like Rembrandt painting an old lady. At the point when he did that, everybody had painted portraits, but it wasn’t relevant that he had painted portraits. What was relevant was his vision of a how people could be seen through the medium of paint. Rembrandt took the most common elements and elevated them. For me, I liked the idea of being able to take this shepherd type dog and have this rugged projection of something menacing and also in opposition a very warm, organic, earthy. To live with an image like this would, I think, give the viewer the opportunity to re-evaluate their relationship to these beings.
CGN: But you said this series is also meditative.
Adam: Yes. One of my series is called the Tantra series. It’s an opportunity for me to eliminate subject matter in order to focus on color exclusively. Here, color is a metaphor in some ways for a change in the temperature of your blood. When we are in environments, color literally changes our system and we secrete different chemicals in our brain – that’s why we look at sunsets and all these cascading chemicals are pumped out of our different organs. The Tantra series is an opportunity for me to think about the body and color as a metaphor of being in an emotional space.
CGN: You started to talk about technology and Wabi-Sabi. How did the series come to be? Can you explain more about technology aspect?
Adam: On a trip to an old girlfriend’s country house in Wisconsin years ago I brought a stack of letters purchased from an antiques store written in Germany in the 1920’s. I get to this atrium in the house and open a letter up and it was written in Yiddish, which is a mostly dead, written language. I looked at it and out of nowhere I took a white candle, I drew a ¾ profile of a woman’s face along the quadrant of the axis of the fold. Working blue watercolor over the wax drawing, a face emerged. That launched a 15-year run of works on paper called Works on Words, where I was interacting with antique manuscripts. That work hit a chord among a wide audience and the collecting community. While showing one year with the Thomas McCormick Gallery at Art Chicago we sold over 25 of these works. It was crazy I was running back to the studio at night making and framing these pieces and delivering them all in the morning in order to keep pace with the demand. After 15 years of developing these small collages, I eventually developed them larger in scale. Later on in the development of these works I began incorporating collage elements such as natural history - butterflies, birds, flowers, dogs, lions, tigers, and bears.
CGN: Was that a departure point for you, working with older materials?
Adam: I had never worked in collage before until I opened up those letters. I was working directly on paper, but never with pre-existing documents. What I was compelled by was this idea of not knowing what the language said and having the responsibility of how my images might be interpreted down the line.
At first the work was smaller in scale, and I began to think I could be more persuasive if I could make it larger. It took me 15 years to figure out how to do that. When I talk about technology, ultimately it was 15 years of me trying to figure out how to take something small and make it large and have it be infused with the same level of humility and humanity. Many people said, ‘Adam, you’ve got to give up,’ and I just hit roadblock after roadblock.
CGN: But you figured it out.
Adam: When I finally figured it out, it was a turning point. I realized I had everything I needed to make a grand, big piece, and I created this image of a boar’s head. I said to my wife, ‘Honey, I think I have something for our dining room,’ and she’s like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of intense. I love it, sure.’ But at that point I have art consultants coming through my studio, curators, some designers, and then all of the sudden, within a week, I had three people mention a new restaurant, Roister, and say I should show it to co-owner Nick Kokonas, whom I happened to know already. It’s a long story, but the piece (Boar’s Head) made it to the restaurant, where it still is.
CGN: I hear you like to tinker with works even after they’re supposedly finished.
Adam: Yes, sometimes I like to go back in; often I am looking at a painting in my studio years later that I feel needs further development.
CGN: You mentioned that Boar’s Head is at Roister. There is another boar’s head painting here at Golden Triangle.
Adam: Yes, this painting has the same motif but is a very different painting. This particular work (Boar’s Head II) speaks about challenging archetypes.
CGN: I see it’s done on panels. What was your creative process?
Adam: It’s done on panels separately – there’s paper, charcoal and wax, ink and acrylic paint. So, for instance, I like layering different types of experiences within my work. These large gestures at the top of the painting are actually taken from my studio floor. When I’m painting, and paint is falling down and I’m slipping on it, they’ll then dry and I peel each one off like plastic. I actually bring the collage back into a work that’s so painterly.
CGN: Tell me about the historical references here.
Adam: People look at Chicago as a food city more than ever, right? We’ve gone from looking at a plate of food as something we eat to looking at it in terms of high examples of what a plate of food is in terms of a narrative. And for me, what I love is this idea of a story, of taking the idea of food as a motif. Take the tradition of looking at food to paint a still life – you have a basket with a cornucopia, with the fruit and the rabbits spilling out. This [lobster painting] is kind of a play on that, but it’s taking it in a kind of mad direction where the paint is spilling out, and the idea is there’s a reference between the idea of cooking and painting and abundance. It speaks to the historical process of creating a meal as well as creating a painting. It is a feast for the eyes, really. Imagine sauces washing all over the place – oil from cooking and from painting.
CGN: How closely related do you think art and food are to each other?
Adam: These works, they’re made sequentially, and what’s unique about collage is what’s important about cooking too. In cooking you can’t go backwards. You add something, and you taste it until it’s right. Or you start over. When you make the meal again you hope to have an understanding of what something will taste like based on how you understand your materials or ingredients. Just like tasting too much salt, too much vinegar, too much fat, too much sweet – collage has been a teaching mechanism for me to see that I know a piece is getting better.
CGN: Where do you think your work is now, after several evolutions over the years, in scale, subject matter and technique?
Adam: This body of work is developing. Some of these paintings feel very relevant to me, because you’re never going to tire of them. I want painting to be reduced to its most essential core where it’s very personal and essential. Like being in the Zen rock garden, I’m trying to take humble materials and allow these very subtle things to ultimately have a voice and cultivate a metaphor for what it’s like to be alive. We can all be sad, angry and vulnerable, as well as inspired, transparent and resilient.
So, this series really hits people. It’s like a meditation on what’s essential in life.
CGN: Looking at this work (Kimono) everything is being turned on its head and moving downward. The butterflies aren’t flying up, they’re tumbling down. All together it's sinister, despite the individual elements of white paint, flowers and butterflies.
Adam: Right, exactly. We’ve inherited an evolutionary perspective, predisposing us to associate color with butterflies and flowers, so I took that archetype and inverted it. There is a literal gravity to it too. It’s not random to use gravity to describe darkness. My dad died when I was 19. I helped him through six months of cancer. Watching your dad die is horrible. There’s also some power that comes with that too. You realize that you have this inheritance. I had been given this gift to know that death is certain, and it kind of amps one’s appreciation of life. This painting is very much a reflection on this balance of what we hold in our lives simultaneously. For me it is an ideal, celebratory perspective. At the same time the bouquet of flowers are a lament, or a death march. I think if we hold these two perspectives, one of celebrating our own humanity and in opposition, our mortality, it can increase our appreciation for the gift of being alive.
CGN: You’re flipping the natural orientation as well as the colors.
Adam: Exactly, so here I’m taking two things that we’re wired to perceive and changing it up. Even if you’re 90, and you’ve had four drinks and you’re three sheets to the wind, you’re not looking at a rendered image. This says, ‘He’s still fucking with me.’ Here it’s dealing with luminance. Light into dark. As a painter to be able to walk both those lines is really powerful. I’m trying to draw people into a space where they are experiencing metaphors of our own environment and challenging the rudimentary nature of those archetypes.
• Adam Siegel’s work is on view at The Golden Triangle at 330 N Clark St. through March 31, 2018.
• Siegel’s work is part of the 88th Artist Member Exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago, January 19-February 24, 2018.
Top image: Boar's Head II