By Virginia Campbell
The majestic mountains, canyons, and deserts of Utah inspire many landscape painters to create canvases that emphasize the natural grandeur and stunning beauty of these breathtaking geological wonders. Steven Lee Adams, on the other hand, creates paintings that almost never feature them and most often simply ignore them. A monumental mountain range that another painter might make the subject of a canvas? Adams would, in all likelihood, cloak it in dusk in the background behind something like a stream winding through low brush.
Once when Adams was out painting en plein air with a fellow artist, the friend turned from the dramatic ridge he’d picked for his subject and found Adams looking the other way. “It’s just like you,” he said to Adams. “Here we are in a magnificent landscape, and you’re painting a ditch.”
Adams likes to unveil the unexpectedly extraordinary qualities of what only seems to be ordinary in nature. Nothing that bowls you over with its obvious importance or inspires awe with its weight or scale makes him want to grab a brush. He’s after deeper rather than bigger emotion, and he prefers the mystery of the intimate to the magic of the exalted. Basically, he’d rather get under your skin than blow you away. “I want to capture landscapes that will haunt the viewer the way they’ve haunted me,” he says.
Creating the sort of haunting landscapes Adams is after is a tall order, precisely because what haunts him are the quiet swaths of nature that most viewers would overlook. He has to create on canvas what is not entirely apparent in the visible world. When you go looking for beauty in the ordinary, you risk ending up with ordinariness.
Adams admits to being daunted. “I have to fight my way to the blank canvas,” says the Utah native, who is 48 and has been painting full time for 19 years. “I always have a triangle of concerns. First there’s the ego, which always wants to do something great. Then there’s the emotional aspect that’s concerned with the feeling of the painting. And then there’s pragmatism, which considers whether anyone will want this painting when it’s done. All three points are necessary. It’s a struggle.”
That initial struggle results in canvases of curious intensity. You can’t immediately put your finger on what is so moving about a broken fence and an interrupted hedge that move diagonally across a canvas—a canvas that is otherwise committed to investigating the many hues of white that make up a snowy landscape. Nor is it obvious why a largely shapeless cloud mass looming benevolently over wavy hills draws you so completely into the heart of the picture. Whatever conflicts Adams experiences as he approaches a canvas resolve themselves in the complexity of visual harmonies that animate his pictures. “It’s getting into the painting that’s the struggle,” says the artist. “Once I’m painting, I’m not struggling anymore.”
Adams’ personal history suggests that it’s just his nature to struggle and persevere. He showed an uncanny talent for drawing in elementary school and, with encouragement from a grandmother who painted, ended up being recognized as genuinely gifted in his high school.
But his dad ran a body shop and held the view that his son should apply himself in the material world and keep his artistic aspirations in check. Adams added to the obstacles between himself and an artistic career by marrying young and having a sizeable family at an early age. He worked in his dad’s body shop when that was not at all what he wanted to be doing. “But I learned a lot,” he says. “I worked in the paint shop, mixing colors. By the time I got to art school, I knew a lot about how to mix colors.”
The school where Adams was first able to become immersed in art was Brigham Young University. “The teachers there told us not to lean on what we did well, to get out of our comfort zones,” Adams says. Though he learned a great deal at BYU, art school was, in the short term, damaging to him. “I lost my sense of what excited me in art. I was like a leaf in the wind,” he comments.
It was several more years before Adams could commit himself to painting, as he struggled to support his family, to find time to paint, and to discover what kind of artist he was meant to be. “Finally I quit looking at other people’s art,” he says.
The turning point for Adams’ transformation into a professional painter came almost out of the blue in 1990. He set out to paint a canvas for Utah’s premier art show, the Spring Salon at the Springville Museum. “I painted so little at that time, but I did one for the Salon, and it ended up winning Best of Show. In truth, I almost hadn’t known what to think of the painting. I was so insecure.” When dealers came asking to see the award-winning painter’s portfolio, there was really nothing to show them.
Then came a transformational period in which Adams endured a wrenching divorce and then, finally, stopped working at anything but painting. Financially backed for a total of $600 a month by his father and two artists for whom he had made frames, he set out to make the paintings that would reflect his vision. And he succeeded. He sold almost every painting in his first show. “My career has grown steadily and gotten better every year since then,” he says.
Early on in his career, Adams was described as a Tonalist, and the tag has stuck. Inasmuch as Tonalism involves a strong preference for atmosphere, shadow, mist, warmer hues, and middle values in color, it’s no surprise Adams has been taken for a practitioner. He could even be seen to be sympathetic to some of the larger philosophical aspects of historical Tonalism, since the warm under-painting he often does gives the feeling of an emanating spirit that resides eternally within the ephemeral visible world. But, says Adams, “I don’t see myself as a Tonalist. What people call Tonalist in my work is just the way I see the world.”
And the way Adams sees the world gets back to his desire to paint canvases that haunt the viewer. The key to his strategy for haunting is the way he suggests a plausibly three-dimensional world on the two-dimensional surface of the canvas and then subverts that three-dimensionality, suspending the viewer between “real” and imagined worlds. The factual two-dimensional nature of the canvas is something Adams ultimately finds more compelling than the three-dimensional nature of the world he’s painting, as modernist artists have since the early 20th century. The way he subverts the three-dimensionality is to concentrate on the design aspect of the compositional elements and the surface textures, and to express certain Tonalist preferences—for atmosphere and mist, for example—which naturally flatten the picture.
The 20th-century abstract expressionist master Mark Rothko was an important influence in Adams’ leaning toward two-dimensionality. When Adams first looked at Rothko’s work in a book as a student at BYU, he couldn’t see what had so electrified the art world for decades. But when he actually stood in front of one of Rothko’s monumental works, he got it—physically, emotionally, and intellectually. “Rothko gave me permission to let go of my concern for the three-dimensional aspects of painting. His work helped me to think about atmosphere without reference to three dimensions.” The approach leaves Adams roughly halfway between realism and abstraction, and that is precisely where he prefers to be. From that halfway mark, he’s able to invest his images with an emotional pulse that would fade incrementally with every degree of realism he added to it.
Just a few months ago, Adams and his second wife moved into a new house about 15 miles from Park City, UT. The house’s large basement, now his studio, lacks northern light, which is the way Adams likes it. “I’ve always found northern light to be too cool,” he says. Though he often paints en plein air, Adams spends the majority of his time in the studio. And pretty much everything he paints, he sells.
He has carefully maintained long-term relationships with his galleries. Back in 1997, in the midst of the dot-com bubble, he was suddenly super-hot and had the surreal experience of seeing a crowd of people in his gallery waiting for his arrival with paintings for a show. He sold many of the canvases before he could even set them down. The gallery owner told him to enjoy the phenomenon, but to understand that it wouldn’t last and be ready for the time when the market crashed or the crowd found a hot new painter to lionize.
Adams followed that advice, and in the years since then, he has continued painting pictures he hopes will find someone to haunt. And despite whatever struggle he may face getting to his canvases, the canvases themselves don’t struggle to find buyers. “Last year was one of my best years,” he says, “even in a down market.”
Kneeland Gallery, Ketchum, ID; Xanadu Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Mary Williams Fine Art, Boulder, CO; Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT; Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR; Mission Gallery, St. George, UT; The Churchill Gallery, Newburyport, MA; www.stevenleeadams.com.
Solo show, Xanadu Gallery, April 7-25.
Solo show, Mockingbird Gallery, May 6-31.
Featured in April 2011.