Hank Adams Essay by Robin Rice

Hank Adams Essay by Robin Rice

Hank Adams has been widely recognized for his oversize figurative busts, but since his student days he has also been drawn to large scale modular works. Process-oriented “events,” as he has recently called them, engaged him entirely during his fall 2001 residency at the Creative Glass Center of America. This manifestation of Adams’ current thinking about glass is most likely his direction for the immediate future.

The two bodies of work at first glance appear to be antithetical; however, links in methodology and meaning become strikingly apparent upon consideration. Adams’ extended family of sand cast heads is heroic in scale but anti-heroic in character. Each borders on caricature, with a demeanor which he proposes is “an asking, an invitation.” They gnash greenish copper teeth in vague timorous smiles as their copper-rimmed eyes pop from deep sockets with dazed alertness. Wire hair sprouts with insane energy from the scalps of these personalities. Adam’s occasional use of brilliant color and his rough yet deft amalgamation of shapes and non-glass materials are humorous, disturbing and insidiously charming. “That’s what I love about portraiture, the line between humor and tragedy,” he’s said, as he describes these contemporary lost souls as “just part of the clan on the planet.”

The quintessential human blend of the pathetic and the ridiculous in these portraits tends to overshadow Adams’ masterful command of sand casting. His integration of decorative patterning and non glass materials makes the sculptures seem effortless, almost thrown away. Their granular skin has an organic irregularity that, as a gesture of the maker, mirrors the accidents of nature. Adams is almost obsessed with our increasing estrangement from nature. “Technology has removed us from touch with the earth. As a piece of nature, we can’t absorb technological change as quickly as it has come. We may not survive to use new technologies,” he fears.

Turning away from representation, but still utilizing his skills of sand casting and integrating materials, Adams’ work at CGCA emerges as a pure meditation on issues of humanity, nature and the ineffable. From the busts to the current field/grid based work, he has improvised with great imagination on a simple material fact: copper and glass expand and contract at about the same rate. You can put a piece of copper into a glob of melted glass and the glass will accept the copper; It won’t shatter as it cools. He also often integrates elements made of plaster or other materials with glass through embedded copper links. He casts myriad half spheres or other shapes from which copper wires and odd-shaped bits extend. He later manipulates the copper to attach these modules to one another or to form ornamental flourishes.

At CGCA, Adams and a team of three tireless and enthusiastic student assistants made large fabrics composed of numerous individually cast pieces of glass joined by threads or ribbons of copper wire. Adams conceived the first of these structures of wire and glass as a pedagogical experiment. Casting a sequence of linked molds demands smooth teamwork with few time-outs and none once the pour of hot glass begins. “I’m pushing [my assistants] hard now, five days a week and we’ll see what happens,” Adams said about half way through his residency.

A “Floor event” is a performance which even if unwitnessed must be recognized as one manifestation of the work of art. The casts are made directly on the cement floor of the hot shop. A colony of giant ant hill mounds of damp bentonite and sand are arranged in a grid. A wooden or metal form from Adams’ large collection is pressed into each hill and removed leaving a hollow for casting. The hills now resemble a monster muffin tin. Next copper wire is placed to connect each mold to others. “You have to teach people how to move their fingers to make objects,” Adams commented regarding this procedure. “People are dying to learn to do this.”

Whether the pattern of connections is mostly rectilinear or mostly diagonal or both, it reflects a grid. The essence of this pattern and its variations is so deeply embedded in the nature of human perception that it resonates throughout the history of art and of the grapholect. Not just in western art and writing, but in art production across time and culture, the grid is an organizing model, as well as a primary model of organization.

After the sand molds are connected by properly placed copper, each is filled with hot glass. At CGCA Adams used clear or lightly tinted glass. In the past, he has also combined cast plaster nexuses with the glass and copper. The first poured glass cannot cool too much before the whole work is placed in the annealing oven. When all the molds are filled, the entire fabric of still soft glass and metal is gently rolled up like a carpet on the floor and carried to the annealing oven to cool slowly.

So far, Adams’ most ambitious accomplishment utilizing this process is a huge metal Spool (77″ in diameter) wound with a 30″ wide fabric of cast glass disks and copper wire constructed with a group of 20 student volunteers at the Blenko Glass Factory over a 24 hour period.

One wonderful thing about Adams’ glass and copper grids is that they are imperfect and, yet, they are whole or at least function as a whole (A similar observation could be made about his portrait subjects: they are damaged but still functional). The unrolling of the cooled work sometimes reveals broken threads or even a shattered piece of glass. Always the material shows the effects of rough treatment. It is no pristine mathematical grid. It is natural. Displayed on a wall, these “Floor events” cast interesting shadows. Each line records a material history one in which chance has played its role. Are they reliefs or perhaps paintings? Adams studied painting in art school.

Certainly, these works hark back to the action painting of mid-twentieth century, as well as to process art of the 1980’s. In glass terms, Adams believes, “The glass movement as we’ve known it is over. Now, it’s just a material. I’m proud of having grown up through this process training, this hands-on experience and knowledge of the natural world.”

In their ability to transcend not just the vessel tradition but a puffed-up self-consciousness about making art from the dazzling and difficult material glass, these works are ultra-sophisticated. They address the nature of objects and relationships and the motive force of communication and art. They don’t offer an answer so much as an opportunity to step back and regard the phenomenon of systems: natural and made. They remind us that beauty resides in the intersection between accident and intention. It literally lurks in every corner, ready to surprise us if we look for it.