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Adam Putnam

In a conversation a few years ago with critic Lauren O’Neill-Butler, Adam Putnam spoke of his interest in what he called “the format of the fragment” and the role it plays in supporting a certain mood of circumspection he wants present in his work—an “ambition to keep things hidden,” as he put it. For the artist, who has embraced a wide assortment of modes and media over the past two decades, this willful opacity isn’t just free-floating obscurantism. Rather, it’s designed to be placed in productive tension with the idea that meaningful connections are in fact ultimately discoverable within and between even the most esoteric sources, if only the right procedures and/or sensibilities are brought to bear on them.

O’Neill-Butler and Putnam were discussing the artist’s 2017 photographic series “Portholes,” which comprises roughly sixty small, seductively dim gelatin silver prints that depict enigmatic bodies, bits of architecture, and scenes from nature. But since that project, Putnam’s deployment of the fragment to simultaneously suggest and forestall meaning has become even more deeply ingrained. His next major body of work, “Landscapes,” 2019, consisted of sixteen small ink drawings focused mostly on bits of unidentified sky and horizon, calling to mind a colorized version of Emily Nelligan’s en plein air chiaroscuros. “Holes,” Putnam’s exhibition at P.P.O.W, felt like a quantitative and qualitative apotheosis of both those projects—here, his conceptual interests were further atomized and dispersed among literally hundreds of discrete works. This densely compelling show included a selection of forty-four-by-thirty-inch framed drawings, a trio of gelatin silver prints, and an arrangement of long tables on which 377 postcardlike ink-on-paper “Visualizations,” 2020–, an ongoing series he began during the pandemic lockdown, were displayed. Also, stewing away in a second gallery was Tower, 2023, a looming white monolith that hummed and burbled while various sorts of ejecta occasionally percolated from the orifices that dotted its surface. (The sculpture was based on another piece Putnam made for “Human Threads,” a 2022 show at Glasgow’s Tramway that featured projects designed to give individuals with profound and multiple learning disabilities opportunities to interact with diverse sensory phenomena.)

When I first encountered Tower, most of its circular apertures seemed inert. Occasionally, however, one burped up a slick of bubbles, while another emitted a cloud of smoke—illuminated like sunset cirrus by a bank of juicily colored spotlights—that swirled above viewers’ heads. Wispy remnants of the haze eventually wended their way into the main gallery, hovering above the mazelike counters on which the visualization cards were laid out. Each of the larger framed drawings depicted a cavity cut into a decorative horizontal plane, like a tile floor in some hot, dusty Iberian hallway, that stretched backward toward a flat wall or horizon line. The geometric incisions—triangular in [Untitled] – Hole 4; trapezoidal in [Untitled] – Hole 5; rectangular and snaking, in a recapitulation of the nearby display tables, in [Untitled] – Hole 6—were strategically poised between trap and portal. However, [Untitled] Hole 2 (all 2021–22), with its glimpse of the very top of a descending ladder, proposed that they were, at least in part, meant to be thought of as means of escape, perhaps from the endless flatness of the multiyear isolation during which they were made.

Putnam’s colorful miniatures constituted the show’s most populous element. Eluding all but the most general categorizations, the images, responding to both nature and culture, ran the gamut—figurative and abstract, ominous and cheerful, celestial and terrestrial, mundane and spiritual. A hand offering a rose, a wave pouring from the open entrance of a brick building, a bolt of lightning creasing a dark sky—taken together, Putnam’s tableaux suggested a kind of oneiric tarot deck in which the stable cosmology of the major and minor arcana has been replaced by an unfettered cascade of cryptically symbolic, inscriptive, and decorative mark-making. Instead of functioning as windows onto the future, however, these acted more like keyholes through which to view the affectual history of one person’s recent past, inside and out.

— Jeffrey Kastner