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"Mad Sally with Things on Strings" by Joy Adams

We're all mad, here


Many people who are labeled "eccentric" are simply living their lives defiantly unencumbered by meaningless norms — and in doing so, may find more soul-fulfilling ways of moving through this strange trip. And these types can teach the rest of us a thing or two. The current exhibit at Axom Gallery showcases the engaging work of Joy Adams, who uses her remarkable artistic talent to tell the story of Mad Sally, and to peer at what's found at the bottom of the garden.

Though Adams serves as the model for her own work, the paintings aren't really of her. A statement provided by the gallery informs viewers that Adams' recurrent, madcap character, "Sally," is partly autobiographical, "representing a composite of English characters from Adams' childhood during WWII." Adams grew up outside of London with working class people — "bawdy, blowzy and laughing together in the face of adversity and hardship." According to the statement, the depictions of Sally are "a theatrical narrative of Adam's experiential observations."

The British-born artist had an early career as a Vaudeville performer with her brother, was a war bride who emigrated to the United States, took up painting in her 30's, studied at SUNY Brockport, taught at Ithaca College, and is now retired, living and working in a renovated barn in Trumansburg. The pieces included in this show were created between 2003 and 2013, and many have been exhibited before in various venues, including at the Memorial Art Gallery's inaugural Biennial Exhibition in 2004.

Outside of the gallery space, we're introduced to Adams' work with the large painting, "Mad Sally Showing Me Her Big Pink Dress," in which the childlike character is rendered mid-curtsey, also wearing black patent leather Mary Janes and her nearly-ever-present leather aviator cap. Staged within a spotlight in the inky darkness, Sally and a bell-and-bow-adorned pug wear the same expectant expression.

Nearby, two smaller paintings, "Tumbler" 1 and 2, are dark dreams of naked, broken dolls positioned awkwardly. Two formal-looking portraits of pups are also included right at the entrance of the gallery, including "Best Mac Daddy Vibes" featuring a prissy looking dog laying on his back, the red bow in his hair juxtaposing hilariously with its erection and lolling tongue.

Inside the gallery space, "The Night Garden" depicts the complex, savage, utterly lovely world underfoot. The eyes are led around the picture through repetition of form — spiny caterpillars and the jagged leaves of thistle weed, fluttering petals mirroring moth wings, undulating worms and curling tendrils of grass. From the dark, bits of life wend toward the light; would-be prey navigate safely into shadow.

A series of mammoth paintings follow, showcasing a subject not usually paid tribute to in such large canvases, which were traditionally reserved for royalty and other dignitaries. Here, we peek into a little old lady's rich inner world, where memory and dream collide and form flowing vistas rife with private symbolism.

In "A Long Wait," Sally sits atop a brown paper package as if incubating a great egg. She's holding a book and a sleeping pup in her lap, and wearing a far-inward expression. Bright shoelaces and bursts of violet blooms break up the field of faded colors, and Sally is thistle-haired herself, her witchy look underscored by a subtle broom set down in the weeds. A great span of time is represented in this pastoral landscape under an industrial sky — a factory brews its fumes in the distance, a dilapidated house leans in the middle ground.

Everything about these works is intimate, our view zeroed in on emotional experience and a quirky, singular pathway. Unframed canvases leave the raw edges visible, with daubs of paint and notes scrawled on them.

In the show's namesake work, "Mad Sally with Things on Strings," our heroine is simultaneously robust and fragile. Her monumental stature and sturdy feet are planted on the ground, her unabashedly soft flesh and veined legs bare. A slight smirk twists her gentle face, and Sally dominates well into an overcast sky. The strings are rings on Sally's fingers, making her a sort of grandma puppet-master pulling the dewy spider threads which tether winged misfit toys, a goat, an insect, and an infant.

Mad Sally is the master again in "The Flying Lesson," a giantess seeming to call a cacophony of birds to her outstretched arms. They come to her from great distances through a rural, heavily overcast sky, flocking to her loving, wistful face, clinging to her, settling down at her feet. A tiny policeman on the road witnesses the disorder perplexed, standing like a stiff toy.

Amid so many busy pictures, the glisteningly pale "Government Issue Bride" heads up one end of the gallery space. With a composed expression, Sally stands centrally, wearing an ornate dress which flows smoothly into the drifting snow. A soldier's personal trappings, including a compass, helmet, watch, clipboard, and a newspaper, poke up from the snow drifts. Curiously, a child's hand pokes up from the snow as well. War planes wheel above, scarring the sky, and a lone parachute is almost lost in the billowing clouds.

In "Belly," Sally has stopped, barefoot on a snowy path, preoccupied and grasping her midsection. Many shapes in the landscape echo the fullness of her form — the pale moon, the round boulders lining the path, a spotted ball situated close by. Footprints in the drifts lead back to a dog, following behind. Unlike most of the other open, airy landscape settings, here Sally — and the viewer — is unable to look back very far, as the curve in the path follows around a massive stone.

This calm scene is positioned next to the more turbulent "Sally's Folly," in which our furious-looking heroine threatens to swing a broom at something locked in her vision but off-scene, perhaps within the dark ravine above which she stands. Ominous symbols abound: a package rests on a stack of rocks, and behind, an empty carriage idles. In the distance, an excavator is parked in a muddy field. An airplane soars above, and birds have settled on the ground near Sally, who seems to never be without wildlife attendants.

A few of Adams' lush, gouache- and pastel-on-paper works are displayed in Axom's office area. "Plight of Ganymede" re-envisions the myth of the beautiful shepherd boy who was whisked away by an amorous Zeus disguised as an Eagle. Here, a baby's legs trail from swarm of butterflies, the child spirited away from a garden which scrambles after the babe, stems winding around his ankle to hold him. A snake rears up to strike at lower left. A penciled swarm of insects fills the air, creating an almost audible clamor, and above, thick dark clouds give way to bright rays of the sun.