Semi-Final Frontiers

recent work by Seth Adelsberger

"Right here and now, one quanta away, there is raging a universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien."
— Terence McKenna

Following his commercially successful album Transformer1, seminal New York musician Lou Reed released his harrowing album Berlin2, a song cycle detailing a triangular relationship fraught with abuse and addiction -- not because he was contrary or artistically brave, but because it simply was what he found himself writing. He recently elaborated: “I am thankful, as an artist, for anything I get.... so when it comes I do it.”

Seth Adelsberger is a Baltimore artist who has never been a theorist and finds all dogma troublesome. “I just don’t think too much when I work,” he says; “I just do what I am interested in at that moment and consider the ramifications later. It comes together.”

Recently Berlin provided Adelsberger fresh inspiration. In 2008 he made a trip to the capital of Germany -- a city Lou Reed had, in fact, never even visited when he wrote his tragic opus. Seth had been awarded the Maryland Sate Arts Council top honors in painting that year. The prize was six thousand bucks, no strings attached. He used it to travel abroad for the first time, and when he hit Berlin, he found he felt very much at home. Stoic Euro-mechanist structuralism and wild bombed-out communal flair thrive together in this fast-paced art-colonized post-millennium epicenter. The powerful, often transgressive, art of Berlin does not shrink from any subject, no matter how taboo or silly. He came back with a newfound sense of possibility.

An earlier sojourn within the United States had had an even more pronounced, transformative effect on Adelsberger. He spent some time in San Francisco soaking up the cultural atmosphere. 'Frisco is like no other American city; the long continuum of U.S. bohemianism flourishes through generations and remains intact there, and in fact dominates the city; psychedelia continues to be a surprising dominant influence. Aspects of classic psychedelia and op art in general appealed to Adelsberger and would begin to seep into his work soon after his return.

The artist, a small town kid from the East coast, had already made his mark in the city closest to where he grew up. In Baltimore his visually astute, hyperactive, thick brush loaded multi-layered biomorphic abstract paintings, created after he graduated from Towson University, quickly found an audience. Young artists, older practitioners, and regional critics all took appreciative notice. Over the next year his work moved in a new direction. As with the aforementioned Reed, it was not career strategy that drove this change; it was the result of the artist’s work formula as played out in his studio. As for many painters, the truth is that he plays it as it comes and sticks with what pleases him, what he finds compelling as he digs around. He found himself guided by the detailed geometric structures that emerged in his new work; it had a new subset of psychological underpinnings.

Recent paintings Red Dawn and Plastic Galactica are emblematic of this change, with their intricate, hard-edge overlays of lines and symmetrical triangular shapes painted in a newly dominant bruised purple-to-red palette; they gaze shifting; possibly menacing; insect-like. The viewer is given a choice; a Rorschach of personal perception. Are these works elaborate, non-representational works, formal in intent, with no other meaning, a playful sparring by the artist? Or are they cool, skittering, emotive, full of slippery representational images of disembodied faces, bodies, eyes -- a revelatory, spewing rumination of domination, flux and psychosis? The artist sees it through a middle ground, with meaning shifting between the two extremes, yet open-ended.

Employing a cut-up, neo-visionary style, he has vanquished much of his previous influence (Phillip Guston and Cy Twombly 3 -- though their ghosts remain) in order to embrace a new, flat, synthetic formula. By combining stoic German utilitarian form and freewheeling California acid test disorientation -- along with bits of the artist’s autobiography (primitive video games of the nineteen 80’s, current art warehouse communal lifestyle, fringe sci-fi such as Phillip K. Dick and William Burroughs, and his own droll, humorous, and anxious persona) -- Adelsberger’s once expansive landscape-meets-internal-rollicking-rollercoaster derived work is now deeply internal, jammed through pulsing windows of distorted, reflective portraiture. With the painting Let Cyclopes Be Bygones he pushes the new formula into high gear, doubling the symmetry and increasing the color key. The hidden, fractured images mimic those found in world-wide shamanistic practices -- a layered gaze that pays witness to the dark shadow of calamity. But Seth’s examination of calamity is of the giddy manic sort that results from “button mashing ”4 —- a form of aggressive gaming strategy employed in the 8-bit side scrolling video games 5 of his youth — and here, when the game is over, the player resets for another round.

A key addition to the aforementioned work is Adelsberger’s newly expansive wall paintings. These large, temporary installations envelope the viewer, further immersing him in Seth's brave new synthetic world, broadening his perspective. The wall works contain girder form geometrics as well, though these are more askew, piled high with linear debris. Grounded in earth tones, this work is central to understanding the epistemology the art is engaged in -- the feel is less claustrophobic; here the external returns, the world sighs. Hints of Guston reappear in the central absurd stacking and piling of form. This is the incongruous cosmic carnie world we and his other works inhabit.

With its increasing flat color composition and detailed cosmic goof, Adelsberger’s new work, then, is ultimately derived from a mash-up of many strains of contemporary pop culture, aligned with graphic art, video games, cinema, online music, skate culture, computers graphics, etc. Trains of high and low art, popular culture, and counter culture coalesce, blending and bleeding together, permeating most every aspect of our lives. It is here Adelsberger's recent work situates itself, in the ever-evolving interconnected world of the popular now, a collective place where an individual's creations become a part of a greater expanding whole.

Jack Livingston
January 2009

Jack Livingston is an artist, writer, critic, teacher, activist and raconteur who hails from Denver, Colorado. He is the founder and executive editor of the online arts and culture review, a project created in partnership with Maryland Institute College of Art and Johns Hopkins University.

1The David Bowie produced album contained Reed's cool do-wop-ish ode to the Warhol set “Walk on the Wild Side” that made its way up the charts into his only mainstream top ten hit.
2Reed recently brought Berlin, now a recognized masterwork, back via a series of live performances, with a follow-up film by set designer Julian Schnabel.
3Phillip Guston (1913 –1980) and Cy Twombly (Born 1928) both use thick brush strokes of loaded oil paint and suspend imagery on fields of white or off white and had a heavy influence their later work is full of abstract imagery, often humorous with pop and sexual pathos. They heavily influenced Adelsberger’s earlier work.
4Button mashing is a term used in console gaming contexts to refer to quick, repeated, and generally random button pressings. The technique is used often out of desperation, barraging the opponent to win, or just because the "masher" likes the reaction he/she gets while mashing. — From Wikipedia
5The most popular use of the side-scrolling format is in the platform game genre. Platform games are action games that feature jumping, climbing, and running characters who must be guided through many diverse levels. Games such as Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog are among the most famous side-scrollers of this type. — From Wikipedia

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February 13, 2009 - March 14, 2009

Opening Reception: Friday, February 13, 2009 from 7pm - 9pm

In his first solo exhibition with Civilian, Seth Adelsberger exhibits new paintings and a site-specific mural. Combining visual ingredients inspired by everyday occurrences and memory, Adelsberger creates complex, unconventional paintings of wild, exotic color.