Fragmented Gaze Curated by Loren Britton

Catalog Essay on Adam Novak

Fragmented Gaze An exhibition featuring: Lauren Faigeles, Alice Lang, Adam Novak, & Paul Mpagi Sepuya. July 9–30, 2016, Tiger Strikes Asteroid Gallery, L.A.

With essays by Jennifer Coates, Ashley Chang, Lindsay Garcia, & Buzz Slutzky. Curated by Loren Britton.


Adam Novak’s paintings combine a dismal, post-expressionist sensibility with a silly one reminiscent of clip art of the 1990’s. If early digital icons tried to look painted, with big jagged shapes to indicate shadows and highlights on figures and objects, Novak’s pictures look like paintings of demented clip art. It’s as if Philip Guston came of age during the Dot Com Boom.

Novak paints awkward moments between bodies and objects, as if the bodies aren’t sure know how to belong in a physical world. The forms in Novak’s paintings appear out of context, not unlike the Microsoft Word paperclip icon (albeit without the feelings of dread conjured by its uninvited presence). In Beer/Leg, a beer bottle levitates above a fragmented leg midsection, inexplicably pouring its contents onto the skin. The leg doesn’t seem to be violently severed; it’s more like the leg is cropped by the edges of a photograph, but centered mid-composition. Novak does not use blood as an indicator of blood, but rather uses red as hair and contour lines outside of the thigh. His compositions have all the visual elements of a narrative--protagonist, action, props—but the pictures reject linearity and causality that one might find in Nicole Eisenman, another painter influenced by Guston.  In Novak’s world, there is no beginning, middle, or end to these stories.  His figures are frozen in their awkward fragmentation, unable to internally communicate.

In Lotion/Beer/Phone, Novak shades his figures’ skin with thick, milky shadows on one side, as if they were characters in 1990’s cartoons-- specifically like characters from Rocko’s Modern Life, which aired on Nickelodeon from 1993-1996. (This strategy is in distinct contrast to the more gradient shading of more contemporary digital animation.) However, the scale of the paintings supersedes his 1990’s cartoons references. To be in dialogue with comics would require smaller compositions, or serial pictures indicating story. Rather, the work is in direct dialogue with painting itself, treading that same Guston line between abstraction and figuration.

One might imagine that Novak’s figures feel awkward, or ashamed of their bodies. In Lotion, the torso looks functional, but its hands are anatomically strange, out of the too-thick forearms at weird angles, like Peter from Family Guy. Could such a strange arm could even perform a simple task such as applying lotion? But that’s not even the silliest aspect of this painting: Novak emphasizes the liquid fluid quality of paint equally among all its forms, liquid and solid alike. The Lotion figure might be pondering the redundancy of rubbing liquid onto liquid, while is standing in a room full of liquid. It’s a visual joke reminiscent of the episode where Rocko opens up his closet to change shirts, only to show that he owns 30 versions of the same shirt.

The paintings seem sloppy at first, with no blending or covering lines from underpainting. But these jagged shapes in Novak’s negative space remind the viewer that he is finding expression in nothingness, in these mundane scenarios, so much so that viewers must ask themselves whether “nothing” is being expressed as well. This question is how Novak is able to tackle dark philosophical questions with anatomical funniness. In this sense, he’s actually very precise.