In both subject matter, mid-century modernist architecture and the west American deserts of California and Arizona, and medium, meticulously airbrushed dots that offer an analogue interpretation of halftone CMYK printing, Melbourne artist Tom Adair’s latest work looks to the recent past to interrogate contemporary culture.
It was an unconventional path that led Tom to become an artist. In place of a formal education in art, his creative practice instead began in graffiti subculture on the streets of Melbourne. He then founded his own fashion label, before going on to work in interior design for an esteemed Australian furniture and homewares design company.
“Eventually, I had to make a decision between a career in art or a career in the commercial world. Art won,” he says. While he chose to pursue art, this background in interior design “really influenced how I approached my art,” he explains. “My time [in design] was very formative for me personally in exposing me to the history, professional practices and relationships of the interior design and architecture world.” His earlier work combined airbrushed dots in monochrome tones with neon lights, and expressed a fascination with modernist architecture and popular culture.
Modernism has remained a key subject in his latest series, Chromatones, which was shown at Nanda\Hobbs Contemporary between April and May this year. Chromatones resulted from a three-week road trip through the west American deserts of California and Arizona; “When I first discussed the show with Ralph Hobbs (gallery director), I immediately knew I wanted to go back to California,” Tom recalls.
While the region’s iconic desert architecture remains an important focus of the new work, Chromatones takes an expanded view to encapsulate the surrounding landscape. “I was first drawn to California two years ago for the architecture, but I wanted to revisit the area looking through a new lens. For this new series, I wanted to explore the meeting point, where the equilibrium lies, between the earth and humans living within it – built form in the landscape,” Tom says.
The coexistence of the homes and desert conditions became a metaphor for the relationship between the constructed world and the natural, humanity and the environment. “Environmentally, there is a balance of our place on the earth, a harmonious stability that appears sustainable – it’s an even tug of war,” he reflects. “The deserts I visited are extremely rugged and I think a great example of how architecture is built around the landscape, the environmental conditions, and it’s hard to tell who’s encroaching, humans on the landscape or vice versa.”
Chromatones also represents an evolution of medium, both in the change from mononchrome to the CMYK palette and in the shift away from neon and acrylic framing. “I wanted to bring the painting or mark-making to the forefront of the artwork I was making, not hide it behind acrylic and neon lights,” says Tom. The palette is “an analogue interpretation of a mechanical reproduction printing technique called halftone CMYK printing,” he explains. “Using a combination of four colours, Yellow, Magenta, Cyan and Black (K), layers of colour are built up that eventually combine to reveal an image.”
Through the use of this technique, Tom describes, “I simultaneously distance the viewer while at the same time immersing them in the subject of the painting. Up close, the artwork is just an abstracted jumble of dots while walking away reveals an image within the dots. It’s a motif and metaphor for appearances, falsehoods, the immediacy and disposable nature of digital media and technology.”
The pop-art aesthetic evoked by this use of airbrush dots and the reference of halftone printing hark back to the optimism of the mid-20th century – a time before print media gave way to digital and when popular culture and consumerism accelerated in tandem. Presenting such ideals through the lens of 60 years of hindsight, and in context of a new decade presently defined by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate change crisis, generates a sense of perspective not unlike the way the minute dots abstract perception of the image.
Current events added an additional layer to this dialogue. The world in which Chromatones was painted looked very different to the one in which the exhibition opened – three weeks before the show was due to open in April, the scale of the pandemic and the lockdown measures taking place meant that a normal opening and exhibition could not go ahead. “Nanda\Hobbs implemented 3D technology to allow anyone to dial in and view the show virtually via their phone or computer,” Tom explains. “We also introduced a video talk between Ralph and myself to inform the viewers about the work in lieu of the opening.”
Unexpected as this sudden transformation was, the harnessing of digital technology to ensure the show could go on became an apt example of the pace of change in culture, the distribution and consumption of images, that the work concerns itself with. Art, once again, rides the wave of change.