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Derrick Adams: LOOKS

A collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic inspires empathy
December 3, 2021

Style Variation 35 2020. Derrick Adams. Acrylic paint and graphite on digital inkjet photograph; 245.1 x 153 x 4.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

“The content of most of my work,” says artist Derrick Adams, “is based on observation and, more so, observation around my environment. I look for things that are in my visual grasp on a daily basis. I look for meaning in those things.” The wig shops in the artist’s Brooklyn neighborhood inspired the nine monumental paintings in Derrick Adams: LOOKS. His interest in this subject goes beyond mere proximity. Hair and wigs carry particular cultural and political weight in Black culture, rendering them powerful tools for self-representation.

Adams seizes on the ability to command one’s image via the change of a wig. “I think there’s a certain power in transforming yourself,” he says. “The idea that you can put on a whole new image in a matter of a couple hours is empowering for some women—to be able to change a wig from short to long, to blonde to orange to purple to green. . . . Not everyone has the confidence to do that.” 

It is the desire to be unique and stand out—through the practice he refers to as “costuming”—that Adams aims to make normal to the broader public. “I see people with these wigs on,” he says, “and I think, you look like a superhero.”

Popular culture and consumerism are important sources for Adams. “I’m attracted to things that are inspired and authored by the urban dweller and then sold back to the customer through a display window,” he says. “I’m always trying to show the value in culture and culture production through consumerism.” Seeking to elevate the practice of costuming, Adams puts the practice of being “fantastic” and “elaborate” front and center in larger-than-life form. The paintings’ sizes and the direct gazes of the faces endow them with commanding presence.

Adams’s paintings do not show generic mannequin heads. He individualizes the geometry of the faces, using varied skin tones and makeup to complement the attitudes projected by the wigs. Their faceted faces share a common heritage with those found in Cubism: traditional West African masks and sculpture. “My interest in geometric compositions,” he says, “began with looking at Benin heads, Kwele marks, Kota reliquary figures, and so on.”

Style Variation 28 2020. Derrick Adams (American, b. 1970). Acrylic paint and graphite on digital inkjet photograph; 245.1 x 153 x 4.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

“I like to think of the mannequin heads as beacons,” Adams says. These paintings are about being seen in every sense of the word—honoring spectacle, celebrating what the artist calls everyday “fantastic-ness,” and telegraphing power and control over one’s image. They encapsulate dense social and political ideas in a most alluring way. “It’s really about a moment of admiring each other,” he says, “a moment of exalting each other.”

This exhibition, a collaboration between Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Museum of Art in celebration of Cleveland Clinic’s centennial, is a fitting embodiment of each institution’s deep commitment to the value that all people need to see and be seen with empathy. Each organization contributes to that goal through art. A cornerstone of Cleveland Clinic’s care model, empathy is embodied in the diversity of its contemporary art collection, wherein patients, visitors, and caregivers alike can find themselves represented in the art. Works by Derrick Adams in Cleveland Clinic’s art collection and the paintings in LOOKS—which are about recognizing and respecting individual expression—directly address representation and visibility as conduits to empathy.