St. Louis artist Jamie Adams' subversive take on sex symbols Jean Seberg and Marilyn Monroe

May 22, 2014 at 4:00 am
jeanniesweetie, 2011.
jeanniesweetie, 2011. jamie adams

By the time Jean Seberg's body was found wrapped in a blanket in the back of her Renault in 1979, an empty bottle of barbiturates by her side, the American actress, aged 40, had become a sort of cultural Rorschach test. Beloved for her early screen work as the elven ingénue in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Seberg had spent most of her professional life in Europe. Thrice wed, she had a contentious relationship with Hollywood producers. She was hounded by the FBI, and she was rumored to have carried the child of a Black Panther — a myth she dispelled by holding an open-casket funeral for her premature child, who died two days after its birth.

But for painter Jamie Adams, no moment in Seberg's troubled career was as powerful as her work in Breathless, where she plays an archetypal innocent abroad whose car-thief boyfriend tries to persuade her to flee France after a botched robbery. Adams' response to the film was deeply personal. It spurred him to embark on a six-year project (concluded in 2012) titled Jeannie Series — a cycle of magnificent, sexually charged canvases where Seberg assumes an ambiguous, gender-fluid grandeur. Several works from this series, all rendered in black and white, are included in Jamie Adams: Recent Work, an exhibit of voluptuous paintings now on view at the Philip Slein Gallery.

Adams confined the Jeannie Series to Seberg's Paris apartment, where her boyfriend hides out after the robbery. There was something about the light of the place, something about the potential of a life yet lived. But in Adams' hands, Seberg becomes less coltish, assuming instead an intimacy that is ultimately illusory and a sexual potency that is unknowable. Modeled in the manner of the Neoclassicists, Adams' Jeannie, along with a cohort of sensuous figures who recline on tousled beds, is often cartoonishly sexualized — a feature he accentuates by placing her sumptuous breasts at unnatural angles, or the painstaking detail he brings to a wrinkle at the base of her silk underwear.

But Jeannie is also fearsome, towering larger than life in some of the canvases. Adams renders her as near sculptural in these works: She is inviting with her culturally sanctioned bombshell sexuality, yet she is forbidding in her infinite gaze and marble anatomy. At heart, though, Jeannie remains fundamentally inaccessible to the artist, a feature he emphasizes by placing himself — in the guise of an androgynous prepubescent youth — in many of the paintings.

In jeanniemattress, for instance, Seberg leans against a mattress that is propped against a wall. She stands on one leg. Her back is slightly arched, and her right arm is behind her head. She's offering her icy fleshiness to the artist, a diminutive figure who stands before her, a paintbrush at his feet. But Jeannie isn't present. She looks abstractly off into the distance, as the painter's avatar, which barely reaches her breast line, stands tense before her, searching for a point of access. Adams' brushwork here is very refined. Confining himself to grayscale, the painter models Seberg's surface anatomy from deep within the figure, giving her a corporeal heft that is rarely found in modern figurative painting.

But for all her physicality, all is not quite right with Jeannie. Upon closer inspection, her right leg and foot have the musculature of a man's. Similarly, her right arm is hulking and masculine. Her exposed torso, breasts and pubic area may be those of idealized feminine sexuality, but the male gaze breaks down at other passages, as the figure that becomes irreducibly hermaphroditic. She is at once the hyper-sexualized creation of the artist (and the culture he inhabits), but this glib eroticism is undermined as Adams infuses the figure with the androgyny of his imagination. It's as though he's painting his own self-portrait through an erotic fixation with idealized female beauty. Meanwhile, Seberg herself, if such a character can be said to exist in these works, remains aloof, unknowable to the artist outside his own conception.

Along with the Seberg paintings, Adams is presenting works from his Niagara Series, a newer cycle of richly conceived, if less successful, color paintings that appear all the more sumptuous for their juxtaposition to the Jeannie Series.

In Niagara Holiday, for instance, Adams again wrestles with the notion of idealized femininity, painting an incandescent Marilyn Monroe in a bedroom scene overlooking Niagara Falls. A grouping of semi-clad figures romps on a bed to her right, but Monroe, oblivious to it all, dominates the canvas — her smile electric, her outsized breasts falling at odd angles, her masculine hand at her chest.

It's as though there are two paintings here: one a dreamy bedroom scene, the other a subversive take on an oft-dissected cultural icon. Alone, each painting might be successful. Merged as they are, however, the canvas becomes disjointed — not necessarily unreadable, but perhaps gratuitous.

This is not to say paintings from the Niagara Series don't contain moments of real splendor. They do. But unleashed from the black-and-white realm of the Jeannie Series, Niagara Holiday explores similar subject matter while overcorrecting for the restraint in those earlier works.

It's an interesting new direction for this very talented painter, and one that will undoubtedly become more refined as the series progresses.