Editorial Review

What is art? 'I am,' answers Adams.
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Jan. 27, 2012

Public art has a way of piquing the interest of passersby, demanding that commuters take a break to ponder street-side mysteries. A pedestrian along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue who notices the "I Am Art" stickers affixed to signposts and telephone poles might mull over the identity of the bearded, goggle- and beret-sporting gentleman they portray. Or a person who was riding the X2 bus circa 2009 might have wondered why a wooden chair atop a pole at Third and H streets NE suddenly appeared.

"Artuare," the exhibition of work by photographer Steven M. Cummings at the Anacostia Community Museum, offers a few answers. For starters, the familiar bearded face belongs to artist B.K. Adams, Cummings's friend and frequent collaborator. While a few pieces in the exhibit spotlight other characters - photos of a drum major from H.D. Woodson High, as well as of Cummings himself - Adams is the unofficial star of the show.

And given his enigmatic appearance and singular approach to art, he's a worthy subject.

Adams dons clothing covered in paint, his eyes all but obscured by perfectly round vintage goggles. He often holds one palm up to the camera, which feels at once like a nod for the viewer to take notice and as a peaceful move reminiscent of Byzantine religious portraits.

In most shots, Adams enacts his signature stance, which gives him the appearance of a sprinter frozen in time: Bending forward, one arm stretches back as if reaching for a baton as the other extends forward; one foot remains rooted to the ground, while the other leg is bent at the knee behind him. The same pose is re-created in various ways - in front of the geyser of a water main break, amid the decaying ruins of an old house, against a blank backdrop while Adams wears a Santa Claus suit.

The show, the second in the museum's "Call and Response" series spotlighting local artists (Adams's painting and sculpture work was the first), often gives off a lighthearted feel. When Adams re-creates his posture obscured by two women jumping in the foreground, the setup recalls "Where's Waldo?" illustrations. But there also is something quirky and compelling about the subject. When the paint-spattered man freezes in front of his paint-spattered work in "Camo," Cummings implies just how inextricably Adams is linked to his art. Adams prides himself on spending every moment either creating or contemplating creation, and here his identity and work bleed together.

While looking at Adams's all-consuming approach, the show also explores how difficult it can be to get noticed. Sometimes a stunt (intentional or otherwise) does the trick.

That chair atop a pole on H Street - a mysterious installation that has since been replaced by condos - stirred curiosity about the artists. Adams's running stance, meanwhile, feels almost commercial, like an artistic logo.

Sometimes the persistence of an image is what makes it memorable. With so much media swirling around us, it's easy to overlook one print on a building's edifice. But if you see the same image all over town of a man in a bowler hat, glasses and a coat, you start to wonder where it came from. (The answer: It's a Cummings self-portrait.) Art can be a business, after all, and gimmicks sell.

The exhibit adds up to a chronicle of how one artist stands out in the crowd, rising above the din of everyday life. At the end of the show, a video installation shows Adams wandering through a field of sunflowers. The shot pans, following the artist as he wades through the floral tide before ducking down, hidden and seemingly drowning in yellow. But as the camera zooms in, a flash of blue emerges. It's the painted hand of B.K. Adams.