Adam S Doyle is a classically educated fine artist and illustrator with a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from New York’s School of Visual Arts. Boston-born, Doyle’s horizons are vast, both physical and intellectual. He has studied and created in Los Angeles, Rome, Auckland, and now Hong Kong, on a mission to “explore stories, thoughts, and feelings that connect us” through his oil paintings. Learn more at www.adamsdoyle.com.
You’ve characterized your artistic mission as an “ongoing investigation.” You’ve also said that this investigation of ideas and concepts precedes the creation of art, is the first step in the process. This is not something most artist talk about, the cerebral simmering of a question and a concept before the actual imagery is decided. Can you tell us more about what you’re investigating and describe how you go about it?
Let me start by thanking you for taking an interest in my work and inviting me to talk about it. It’s an honor. I’ll do my best to stay on track and make some kind of sense.
If you’ve ever sat down with a pencil and paper to draw a flower you’ll understand what it means to see something more fully than you ever have before. Depicting the distinct petals on this flower, the thinly arched orange petals, the suspended stamen, the sunlight caught, and the shadows cast, is an exercise in understanding the world as it is. During the 15th century in Italy, when the Church had for centuries owned the minds of the populace and dictated that art be informed by the Bible and not what was out in the world, a painter broke free from the flat, stylized canon and painted his chapel frescoes with an investigation of perspective as we see it and natural lighting. Masaccio set the ball in motion for inquiry long since dormant in the Middle Ages, instigating what we later would call the Renaissance. In all of its shapes and colors, beauty and horror, skilled and naive, Art is a search for Truth. Defining what art is is always dangerous, but I’ll stand behind that as a broad declaration. Truth includes everything from understanding the external world; light, form, space, structure, texture, color, and so on, to internal truths; how we feel and what we think. Every ascent in human consciousness follows the work of pioneers. So too scientists and philosophers stand at the vanguard, engaging the universe and the mind for understanding. It should be said that breaking ground on the nature of reality is not necessarily a deliberate act by the artist. Most were not setting out to lift cultural thought as much as doing “what felt right”. In the late 19th century Paul Cézanne found that to truly capture the assorted fruits and bowl on the table he needed to break them apart and reassemble them using dabs of paint. This synthesis influenced the Cubists years later who fractured time into a subjective experience alongside the quantum theories of Einstein. In the 40s eccentric visionary Salvador Dalí tapped into his dreams, capturing something we all share in our subconscious. With each frontier challenged we are confronted with not just what art is, but what it means to be human. The dance between Art and Science expands endlessly our understanding of who we are and the way things work. With each accepted revised understanding we undergo a paradigm shift and participate in our own evolution.
I do put thought into the images I make, but it’s deceptive to think that all the answers are squared away before the paint goes down. Painting is a fully involved process that brings together intention with receptivity. A dance between the order of research and the chaos of improvisation. I’ll generally turn the dial of clarity higher with an illustration and lower with a personal painting.
An editorial illustration will call for layering several ideas into a tight package. An article about the popularity of teen vampire novels I worked on required bringing a few specific concepts together in an original way. I wanted to capture the sense of a girl swooning (as was the case of fandom), the presence of a vampire (without fang clichés), and keep the image positive (to convey the article’s embrace of the trend) so as to keep it from getting too dark. The result was an ethereal depiction of a girl reclining in blissful infatuation, her throat ever so subtly punctured.
With a painting I may have the faintest glimmer of a mental image, which is built upon with research, reference, then diving into it with paint. Like an actor who thoroughly gets into their character before the lights go up, painting is a performance consumed by the moment. Being present to the creative act in this way has resulted in countless failures but also innumerable surprises. From there my work has grown and will hopefully continue to grow in ways I cannot conceive.
As for specific themes that are an ongoing part of my investigation—the human mark, our shared story, our connection to nature, and envisioning energy—I’ll dig into them via your question to follow.
You employ pristine white backgrounds in much of your work, very unusual for oil paintings. Is there a conceptual significance to this?
The white background is really important to my work, but not in a way that I would expect folks to immediately realize. It’s all about the magic of creation. 40,000 years ago our primitive ancestors made images on cave walls to conjure a relationship with their environment and we been involved in this practice ever since. When walking through a museum you’ll occasionally find works that are unfinished or a preliminary study. I’ve always been drawn to these pieces. In them you can see the artist’s hand. You have access to the moment before (the raw canvas) and the moment after (the finished painting). There’s the transformation from canvas to Rembrandt’s earnest eyes staring right back at you. Walk slowly up to a John Singer Sargent portrait of high society and you’ll see the lavish dress dissolve into dashed strokes before your eyes. This transformation of course applies to stone turned skin of sculpture, wall turned word of graffiti, and any other material turned subject as well.
My motivation for making images on the white surface is a means to keep that portal open between the act of creation to the act of being seen. We’re so used to seeing images everywhere all the time we’ve grown completely numb to the power of it. The human mark says “I was here” and that means something. Turning a blank surface into a living, breathing being or a vast space is magical. So that’s why the white. It’s to keep the window partly open. The plane to infinity. And as a devotee of wonder I find this quality interesting and worthwhile sharing with others.
Can you tell us about the role of myth in your work? These themes you explore—man and his aspirations, his connection to nature and the primal self—that’s heady stuff.
In addressing art as investigation I talked about grasping truth trough facts. Mythology can be seen as accessing truth via the unknowable. I speak about mythology because it’s a word I’m comfortable with to describe the delving into the core of a story or idea. In my life and work it’s come to inform getting at the heart of a story and highlight how it touches upon something larger. Living today with our super advanced modern conveniences and the prospect of cars that drive themselves and nanotechnology flowing through out bloodstreams, all of which will be remarkable, it does nothing to change our state in the human condition. In fact, I’d say as we get closer to artificial intelligence becoming indistinguishable from our own, myths will grow increasingly more important to stay clear about what being human means. The essence of the matter is; what physicists tell us about the nature of the universe—from the warping of space-time, wave-particle duality, string theory and the multiverse—doesn’t inform life as we experience it. We need metaphors to relate to the incomprehensible.
The struggle to gain understanding of oneself and a sense of belonging to one’s community is fundamental. Mythology is the language of narratives, rituals, and symbols that define that. The Paleolithic cave painter mentioned earlier conjures a relationship with bison and lions via pigment on stone. Primitive cultures utilize rites of passage, metaphoric deaths and rebirths, that let the growing adolescent know he is part of the tribe. These can be terrifying and brutal. But feeling lost and confused about one’s place is a non-issue. Not the way it is in modern society with all of the horrible school shootings and senseless acts of violence to which we’ve sadly grown accustomed. Each culture has its own holidays and ceremonies to remember the past and bear witness to the present. We ritualistically carve a turkey on Thanksgiving and wear gowns at graduation. But is that enough? We need to believe we are accepted. We need to know that we belong. Many say that celebrities fulfill our need for larger-than-life dramas. But do they provide us with more than water cooler banter? I don’t think so. Neither would Tyler Durden. Consider the stories of Oedipus, Buddha, Loki, Jesus, Victor Frankenstein, Dorothy Gale, Luke Skywalker, or Ender Wiggin: these are manifestations of our inner narratives. They touch upon our collective memory, the archetype as defined by Carl Jung. The reverberation of our inner thoughts made tangible. The tales we live by in our trite office politics and in the romance of our relationships.
An example in my work could be found in the avian portraits. The bird is real and the bird is a symbol. Able to fly through the endless expanse of sky, they are relatable beyond ethnicity or language as a form that personifies our aspirations. They provide a space for breathing deep and dreaming big. Eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.” That speaks to me as deeply, deeply true.
In many of your paintings, the subject’s eyes are omitted—why?
Because the eyes are overpowering. We immediately relate to people and animals in real life and in depictions via the eyes. I’ll segue into one of the other themes I explore, which is visualizing energy. I attribute this to having grown up with my father who is a doctor and acupuncturist. Because he tended to my health, the Eastern idea of chi, the body’s life force flowing through the body and being a means to self-healing, has always been present. One day in the studio I realized that this concept had made its way into my painting. When I say it’s important to think but not overthink what you’re working on it’s because of moments like this. When an active unconsciousness and an open consciousness meet, discoveries are made. So when I’m focusing on the interior dimension I’ve found that I’ve had to downplay the eyes so that they don’t conflict with the view we’re having into the inner world. This way of painting gives me latitude in going between the outside and the inside, the figurative and the imagined, the real and the unreal. When most successful my paintings have a vibrancy, revealing and reverberating with life.
Brian Eno has proposed (quoting Roy Ascott) that we “[s]top thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” If art is defined this way, then a painting does not become a work of art until seen and reacted to by someone other than the creator, therefore the creator’s own concrete intention or opinion is no longer central and the “meaning” of the work is a communal, fluid, and probably undefinable collection of every audience’s idiosyncratic interpretation/reaction. Furthermore, since the audience is required for validation and for defining (however loosely) the meaning of a work, then art is inherently collaborative between creator and audience. Do you agree with this?
Sure, if we’re saying that the viewer or listener completes the cycle of a piece of artwork (outside of the personal fulfillment an artist gets from the act of creating it) then it is inherent that there will be different interpretations. At the outset we’ll agree that in order for a work to serve its larger role, as mentioned with Masaccio and Dalí, it will need the participation of viewers. One way of looking at it is that the artist is crafting something out of the fabric of the cultural consciousness through an internal process. By being alive we are part of and responding to what’s going on around us. Setting down the brushes and hanging the piece on the wall is in some ways an act of recycling; contributing back to the cultural conversation.
Is it upsetting when a viewer or listener misinterprets a work from what you intended? It can be. It hasn’t really been an issue for me. I’m sure it was for Georgia O’Keeffe, who didn’t see her paintings as sexual. But it comes with the territory. Every artist knows when they put their piece up on the wall that it may take on a life of its own via the assumptions of the viewer. As we see through history, the public of the time aren’t always equipped to handle the artwork. There’s that famous account of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring causing the audience to riot because the likes of its dissonance had never been heard before. The general public isn’t always the best judge of artwork because it can take time to process. It can be disliked or ignored. It happens all the time. If it really has significance then time will tell. On a smaller scale, artists do have a say in providing an explanation with a statement. Sometimes it adds to the work, sometimes it detracts. It depends. The more open-ended the work, the more latitude available to the viewer, the more likelihood it can be misinterpreted. The only real downside to your question about misinterpretation is if an artist’s work gets co-opted for negative ends. If it becomes a symbol for a hate-group or something. I mentioned earlier that one of the qualities in painting birds is that I think they do a good job of embodying hope and aspiration. Does this mean everyone who sees them will think that? Certainly not. And that’s fine. It’s design’s job to be explicitly clear. Art needs room to breathe. More than anything though and I think most creatives would agree: if people don’t ignore it and actually care enough to have an interpretation, to find meaning in what you made, then that’s really the most rewarding thing. If what you do matters, then you’re doing something right.
You created a series of paintings in response to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico BP oil disaster, you painted a portrait of Barack Obama for MoveOn.org, and you contributed to the 52 Shades of Greed card deck, an inflammatory sort of muckraking project by the Occupy Wall Street/Alternative Banking movement. Do you believe artists have an obligation to effect political change when possible?
Artists absolutely have the ability to affect political change. Another key role of the artist in society is to be the voice of the people. Change happens from the bottom up. The artist is the one who holds the mirror to society, warts and all. Creators can be very informed observers and have the ability to contribute and communicate insights larger than themselves. The mythic mischievous trickster archetype. I’m certainly no Ai Weiwei or Shepard Fairey. But when something real happens that is tragic or worthy of support I’ll do what I can. Having pursued a skill set that isn’t fighting fires or mending broken bones, making art for a cause is a great opportunity to contribute. The Oil Spill series you mentioned came out of a visceral response to create something beautiful to draw attention to that horrible event. To pay respect and elevate awareness towards it not happening again. The portrait of Obama likewise was a way to cultivate support for what looked to be a truly historical political shift. Being invited to contribute to the 52 Shades of Greed deck was a no brainer. I marched in New York and Boston in support for accountability. Just recently I’ve been contemplating climate change and how what could help the debate is a meaningful symbol. Like the peace sign or yin yang. The back and forth over whether or not it’s happening is endlessly drawing out corporate responsibility. Having a visual that declares the issue is real and we need to make right would get it out of the abstract and provide an emblem to stand with.
You’ve described the contrasting cultural/aesthetic experiences of living in New York and in Rome. Now you are located in Hong Kong. I’m assuming that the Invisible Dragons series, depicting dragons comprised of high-rises and wreathed in pluming smoke, is inspired by Hong Kong. What is Hong Kong to you, and how does this commercial metropolis compare to Rome and New York?
I never set out to live in different cities, but looking back it turns out I haven’t stayed in the same place for more than five consecutive years since leaving Boston as a teenager, though I do consider it home and return to recharge regularly. Each place has made an impression, but I couldn’t quantify how, as age 20 and 30 mark such different times in one’s life already. Your city of New Orleans is a wonderfully lyrical and welcoming place. I met my girlfriend there a little over a year ago. Great music and food.
Traveling and living abroad is a great way to stay stimulated. I’m incredibly lucky to be both a freelancer and have the technology available to stay globally connected. Each city of course has its own personality. I could reflect on the exuberance of Rome, where ancient and modern collide amid the buzz of Vespas and the love of history is infectious. While living in LA the wide roads and vast sky slowed time down to an ever-present moment. Whereas in New York City, Patience & Fortitude are the names of the Library’s lions for a reason. My work wouldn’t have galvanized to the next level without it. But it did push me to need an around-the-world escape. Auckland afforded drives out into the most epic soul-filling varied landscapes. In time I reckon the effects of Hong Kong will be more visible, with its egg carton-packed apartments, jackhammer mornings, and palatial malls, only offset by junk boat rides and, when it’s not too hot, hikes along the Dragon’s Back trails. Sing Chronos City was painted here at the end of last summer, followed by a couple of those dragons you mentioned. The title of Invisible Dragons is a reference to a great book of magical realism by Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities. Marco Polo recounts to Kublai Kahn the incredible cities he’s seen, conjuring imaginative feats of architecture that resonate as relatable portraits. I highly recommend it.
At the end of the day though, it all goes into the stew that’s life, influencing directly or indirectly. A detail may make an appearance in one painting, a sense of space in another. All in all, I like getting lost in new places and meeting new people. That’s the simple answer right there.
Do you have any new themes you’re investigating?
I’m playing around with a few ideas. Whether they’ll become an official series or just be part of the learning process remains to be seen. Doing a thing with explosions and studies in intimate duality. A creepy ink splattered kid’s book is underway as well.
Let me close by thanking you for these really terrific questions. I hope some sense can be made of it. It’s tricky finding the right balance for a broad audience. Being a career art guy is fraught with all the headaches that come with any job, so having a chance to revel in meaning and intention means a lot.
Spread the word!