For the past seven years, Amy Adler has taken time off from exhibiting to attend film school at the University of Southern California, where she earned an MFA in 2011, and to make two short films, Ready for Love (2009) and Mein Schloss (2012), both of which deal with sexual and autobiographical anxieties. In this recent show, Adler offered five large oil-pastel-on-canvas drawings that deepen her longtime investigation of the nature of childhood and adolescence. Inspired by location photographs taken for a now-abandoned film project, the works, all dated 2014 and from the series “Location (Playground),” depict vibrantly colored jungle gyms variously composed of platforms, ladders and slides. Like a good film director, Adler has chosen subjects that can tell stories on their own, without actors or a script. Executed in seemingly key-lit colors that pop out of the shadowy evening settings, the playgrounds suggest launching pads for sexual awakenings, nefarious rendezvous and illicit abductions.
The center-frame presentations make evident the odd sexual connotations of the structures’ architecture and invite heavy-duty Freudian readings. Consider the torqued ladders, prison-bar railings and narrow passageways ending in orificelike openings that lead to sliding poles, hanging bars and tonguelike curving slides. Unlike paint, the oil pastel allows the texture of the canvas to show, mitigating the realism. The edges of the equipment are outlined in black, making the images appear as if they had been cut out and pasted onto the less precisely rendered backgrounds. Like all of Adler’s drawings, these are hyper self-conscious works. The harsh, queasy colors augment the menacing mood and turn the playgrounds into threatening carnival funhouses. Operating like the establishing shots of a film (Charles Laughton’s 1955 dark fairytale The Night of the Hunter comes to mind), Adler’s drawings set the scene for repressed desire.
In the imposing 11-by-18-foot Location (Playground no. 4), three leafless trees against a deep-blue moonlit sky serve as the ground for two hexagonal pavilions, each with a large slide. The mouths of the teal slides seem to flicker with a deadpan comic sensuality. Location (Playground no. 3) features a jungle gym with a dark brown keyhole-shaped aperture leading to a snoutlike slide, evoking the cores and cavities of feminist and queer art. The two undulating slides emerging from the structure in Location (Playground no. 5) are hemmed in by a background of looming palm trees and a chain-link fence, and a foreground of crisp, spooky shadows.
Like the fangs, turrets and ravens of gothic fiction, Adler’s sexually loaded, exaggeratedly dramatic imagery has a mordant humor. Her elucidation of the inherent perversity of manufactured playground equipment speaks to the sublimated sexuality of everything, even mass-market design. The works in this show were the artist’s first without the human figure, yet they are some of her most psychologically compelling. The absence enhances the menace and creates a kind of unsettling suspense. Adler has presented training grounds for future prisoners of sex that Foucault, Paglia or Mailer would relish.