Of all the installations in the Sondheim Exhibition, the work of Lauren Frances Adams feels most at home in the Walters Art Museum. And that’s not entirely due to her appropriation of the museum’s work in 'Precarious Prototypes,' where selections of the museums objects float in glass boxes and appear in print on textile curtains. Rather, it is the way that she sees art as a form of research, a study of culture that is served by her artistic labor, which works synergistically with the Walters’ historical mission. But Adams’ work has great vitality as contemporary art too, because she creates a revisionist history—or as she calls it, “critical explorations of labor and class in visual culture.” Her case in point is illustrated, with great drama, in the altered bust of Giacomo Maria Stampa anchoring the installation: The magistrate himself is shrouded in black, leaving visible the two enslaved figures that crouch to support his shoulders. Adams has made a literal revision to the original work, drawing the focus of history down from the face of power to the men who were intended originally as decorations.
Adams’ interest in pattern and decoration painting clearly influenced the core content of the work as she explores the artistic representation of enslaved peoples. While 'Precarious Prototypes' is polished and grandly conceptual (packing the visual drama that wins large awards), Adams’ fervor is more explicit on the other side of the gallery, where ornate illustrations detail the depictions of enslaved peoples in many traditions across a broad cultural spectrum. The hanging of the small paintings chafed at my gallery sensibilities in a way that felt healthy—the frames are cramped and the rough edges of the paper betray the hand of the maker, but I was drawn deeply into the crowded texts hand-painted by the artist-historian. The details here aspire to those of other illuminated manuscripts that can be seen at the Walters, making it perhaps the perfect place to elevate the illustrative arts alongside grander and more formalist works. Adams is fighting for the underdogs of both art and history here, using literal patterns to draw out global ones and small images to tell large stories.