A painting from the series Untitled (A Victim of American Democracy).
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The artist with another piece in the same series behind him.
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Pendleton creates a work featuring expressive linear strokes spray-painted on canvas.
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“Ballot or the Bullet (what a day was this...),” silk-screen ink on Mylar; “what a day was this...,” silk-screen on Mylar.
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New York-based artist Adam Pendleton is in the midst of a banner year. In January, Becoming Imperceptible—the largest presentation of the artist’s work thus far—opened at Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art. (Previously, it had shown at Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans and Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.) In February, Pendleton unveiled his first international museum exhibit at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, titled shot him in the face. September brought the release of Adam Pendleton: Black Dada Reader, a 400-page hardcover featuring his texts and documents. And Nov. 17, Pendleton— who signed with Pace in 2012, and was the youngest artist to do so since the 1970s—continues to build momentum with an exhibit of a dozen new works, Which We Can, at the blue-chip gallery’s Palo Alto outpost.
While his practice gracefully blurs the lines between media, including painting, video and performance, above all else, Pendleton considers himself a conceptual artist. “The ideas are primary,” he says. “Of course, form is of great importance, but it’s often in service of the idea—rather than the other way around.” There is, however, a theme that weaves throughout everything Pendleton touches: language. “I grapple with the use of language as a kind of critical disposition toward historical narratives,” he explains, “and use my work as a means to reorient ourselves around language—how we use it and experience it.” Ultimately, his goal is to challenge what people perceive as truth; be it historical, social or cultural. And because everyone depends on language, even simply to survive, Pendleton believes it’s crucial to examine and query how it’s used, and how it informs so much of what we do.
It should come as no surprise, then, that literature played a pivotal role in Pendleton’s upbringing. “There were a lot of books in my home growing up, books that I was reading at too early an age,” he recalls. “But more than their actual writing, I was interested in the critical disposition these artists, from Gertrude Stein to June Jordan, had to the world around them.” Today, books continue to deeply shape and inform Pendleton’s practice. In addition to visiting bookstores regularly, reading (alongside writing) contributes to his creative process.
In Untitled (A Victim of American Democracy)—a collection of six new spray-paint and silk-screen paintings shown at Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich late last year—Pendleton references a speech Malcolm X gave in 1964. At the time, Malcolm X was addressing how black Americans were unable to take advantage of the American dream and what it encompassed. Now the words feel even more pronounced and relevant to Pendleton. “I am using language from a speech given during the height of the civil rights movement in America, but am now using it in relationship to our current political current situation,” he says. “There’s a broader sense of people having a more contentious and critical view of this American ideal and where we’re headed.”
Even the words in the works themselves provoke the viewer. “The language is unstable in the actual space of the painting,” he notes. “It’s fractured and abstracted, so there’s tension in the legibility.” Though his practice is unquestionably politically charged, he adds that “in no way is it prescriptive. e specifics of any political situation are always an open-ended question. If anything, my works are an attempt to complicate what we think is happening.” When asked about the noticeable absence of color in his works, Pendleton is equally direct: “I’m using only what is necessary. It orients the tension of the viewer in a more explicit and specific way, and there’s less distraction.”
Though he’s traveled and shown extensively this year, Pendleton is particularly excited about his upcoming exhibit in Palo Alto, which is his first with Pace since 2014. It calls to mind his early experiences with galleries, when he would make frequent visits to New York from his hometown of Richmond, Va., to explore the city’s SoHo neighborhood. “When I first started looking at art as a teenager, it was in these galleries that were long and wide with tall ceilings,” says the 33-year-old. “It feels nice to finally do a show in a space that feels proportionally similar.”
Originally published in the November/December issue of Silicon Valley