John M. Adams’ Terminal Flux cannot be contained by gallery walls. His largest site-specific work to date confronts the viewer before even entering Northern Virginia Community College’s Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center. Viewed through the glass curtain wall framing the Center’s atrium, the graphite-based piece appears to break through an upper support wall as it begins its cascade into the atrium proper.
Outside views only hint at Terminal Flux’s scale. That scale is more fully appreciated when viewed inside the atrium, where its 20 foot vertical rise and 30 foot span become more apparent. Here the true breadth of the installation takes shape as the viewer sees the vertical element seemingly escape from inside the building, gliding down the wall onto the lintel above the main entrance where it disappears, only to reappear some distance later. Not until one climbs to a second floor overlook can the piece be seen in total, its curious lines repelling and coalescing on the top surface of the lintel before dripping over the side towards the floor.
At least that is the plan. On the day I visited, the artist’s first strokes were just being applied. Months of planning and fundraising have come to fruition as the powdered graphite begins to flow down the wall. To my mind the work invokes something akin to a waterfall, pooling upon the lintel’s horizontal surface before potentially drenching unsuspecting visitors below. It’s trompe-l’œil beginnings high on the wall invoke the notion that this force, somehow existing within the structure of the building, is finally breaking free. While Adams appreciates that interpretation, he is quick to note that the movement of the lines—the way they “flux and flow”—carries with it multiple ideas, “suggest[ing] something other than itself.”
The meditative look on Adams’ face as he draws belies the methodical processes that go into creating such a large-scale work. While it appears improvisational, the overall structure of the piece has been planned down to tiny details. On a work table near his cherrypicker rest sketches outlining whorls and curls of graphite in varied thicknesses and intensities—case studies, if you will, for how to conceptualize his flux and flow. Though more painstaking than pencil, Adams prefers working with graphite in its powdered form, applying the material to the wall with a variety of homemade utensils and sponges. This additive technique also gives the lines a softer, more painterly aura that reinforce Adams’ desire for a multiplicity of interpretations.
The notion of varying ideas rising to the fore is exactly what Exhibitions Director Mary Welch Higgins had in mind when she invited Adams into the gallery. Higgins is keen to see the reaction from the student body and community at large, noting it is “good for the students to see what the possibilities are,” for using physical space in unexpected ways. Not only is the “proper” relationship between the art and the gallery wall questioned, but by situating the work in front of the building’s glass curtain wall Adams pulls the outside world in; a two-dimensional work suddenly escapes into three dimensions.
The artist is slightly more circumspect in his commentary, but only because his intention is for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Could it be some kind of metaphor? Perhaps so, perhaps not. However, by putting viewers in a situation where they have to physically move around to view the work, Adams creates a certain intimacy between subject and object, underscoring the notion that the process of experiencing the work is just as important as the end interpretation.
Terminal Flux is now on view at Northern Virginia Community College’s Schlesinger Center in Alexandria Virginia. An opening reception is scheduled for February 11 from 2-4 pm. For more information, visit the Center’s website here. The installation will remain on view through 2017.