black ‘icons’: derrick adams’ emoji portraits

April 2, 2019

Artist Derrick Adams reworks the concept of portraiture into a disembodied, multilayered digital interpretation in his new series of large scale oil painting at the Midtown Manhattan branch of the Mary Boone Gallery, New Icons. The work is the last exhibition presented by the twice-notorious gallerist, known worldwide for her association with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s, and now for her pending jail sentence for tax fraud, scheduled to begin in May 2019. (The gallery is scheduled to re-open in 2021, upon Boone’s release.)

Installation view of ‘Derrick Adams: New Icons’; ©Derrick Adams (c/o Mary Boone Gallery, New York)

The future notoriety and Martha Stewart-like street-cred that awaits Boone pairs quite well with Adams’ exploration of the term, New Icons. The stars of Adams’ paintings are, however, constructed through the modern day iconography of emojis. Through a combination of CNC machine painting and the artist’s own hand, black surfaces with faint imperfections offer the backdrop for two to three emoji symbols laid out in a horizontal line across the center of each painting.

Installation view of ‘Derrick Adams: New Icons’; ©Derrick Adams (c/o Mary Boone Gallery, New York)

Functioning as sentences — or mathematical phrases — each painting’s title reveals who it references. All of the subjects are Black, and include a variety of individuals made famous by media and popular culture, from the worlds of sports, entertainment and politics. Luminaries like Sister Souljah, Colin Kaepernick, Mike Tyson, Paul Mooney, Grace Jones, Kanye West and the founders of Black Lives Matter collectively – Alicia, Patrisse, Opal – are among the people represented.

Installation view of ‘Derrick Adams: New Icons’; ©Derrick Adams (c/o Mary Boone Gallery, New York)

Adams’ trademark infusion of playful edutainment is present throughout, an effort to make his audience aware of specific figures and their contributions to Black history, especially those who championed unorthodoxy, and whose legacies challenged convention and the hive mind. Each portrait has a set of deep subtexts and historical lineages that can be deduced by viewers, if they hone in on specific messages. The happy and smiley faces that stand in for Kanye West, speak to the range of his emotional public expressiveness. Grace Jones’ marks — Planet Earth with the continent of Africa front-and-center, an alien, and the raising-both-hands emoji — celebrate her interplanetary Goddesshood rooted in Blackness. And so on.

Derrick Adams, “Grace Jones” (2018);60″ by 84″; oil/canvas; ©Derrick Adams (c/o Mary Boone Gallery, New York)

Adams’ Warhol-like strategy — co-opting pop art for the purposes of Black empowerment through the armature of the art world — is in full effect, in New Icons. Although his work offers a bit of eye candy, its sweetest center may be found in its narrative of warriorhood, with all of the accompanying imperfections and vulnerabilities, over victimhood.

Derrick Adams: New Icons is on view at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery through April 27, 2019.