I’ve been acquainted with South Florida based artist Adam Sheetz for almost a decade now. I met him first at FAU, watching him perform in an anti-war folk duo he lead. After being taken in by the combination of high talent and humility I was further impressed as we spoke on current political issues. Since then I’ve seen his talents contribute to other worthy musical endeavors in numerous local spaces and also seen his graphic art work at a number of venues. While a fan from the beginning, I’ve also noticed that at each new encounter with his work that his artistry has improved – something noticed not just by me but also by those that voted for him and got him the award of New Times Best Visual Artist of 2015.
I met with Adam Sheetz at his house in West Palm Beach. After he showed me around his house filled with unique, carnivalesque art and guitars I chatted with his wife Lindsey for a bit we made our way to his studio. After I looked over the canvases that were in the room and perused some of the books in his library, many of which I also had in mine, we had a shot of whiskey in homage to our shared appreciation of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson then cracked open beers and started talking about a number of things. As the interview was three hours and forty-five minutes, or 38 pages transcribed, it had been edited for readability and concision. Enjoy!
Ariel: So what are you setting up on the easel right now?
Adam: I thought of a Trump piece last night. I’m going to do Trump now in a big diaper crashing through D.C.
Ariel: One of the things that I’ve noticed in the content of you work is a negation of the dominant tropes and narrative of American society – be they politicians, police or religious figures. A negation of that negation, as it were.
Adam: Well I try and leap for the most exaggerated, most grotesque forms of what is actually out there. I really want to be objective for this show. I don’t really want to be supporting any particular candidate. I just want to put the shit out there. I’m not in the business to make people look pretty, I’m in the business to expose people for what they are. If I can elevate the negative to a level that is so farfetched from what it actually is, but within that there are still tenants of a deeper truth, well than that is exactly the kind of attention that they deserve and need. I’m not saying exaggeration is the only way to arrive at a real truth, if you are just telling it like it is, few people are going to pay attention. If you throw in some tits or a politician jacking off or something, people are more likely to look. I mean, why shouldn’t artists use the same methods of big business advertising and culture. Sex sells.
Ariel: That’s precisely why my second book has so much sex in it.
Adam: There you go.
Ariel: So I really like your Animal Farm series. I’m curious to see what thoughts you have that words and qualities associated with being an animal, apart from being a tiger in bed and or hung like an elephant, are typically negative. Do you think that this type of objectification influences the way that people treat the environment?
Adam: I actually wasn’t even going for it in that sense, but I like the connection.
Ariel: You can use that if you like.
Adam: [Laughs] Yeah, I will. With that piece, you know one thing that I have been struggling with in my art, especially taking as a subject something so explicitly that is thematically socio-political, you know the easy way out would be to do each politician as they are. You know do their portrait in some way, but you know that’s only going to last for 2-4 years before it is irrelevant. But the problems are always the same.
Ariel: That’s a really good formulation.
Adam: So my struggle is you know, how do I attack these people by attacking the problems that they are creating? I’ve found very often that the best way to do that is through animals. There are so many parallels to different personality types in the animal world. Not just that, but the symbolism that animals hold in the Bible. I feel that I do a better service to the issues by not putting the people in there. I think if you put people and faces that are recognisable, it gives them more credit than they deserve. It then makes the piece about them, and I think if you make it about them you ultimately miss the bigger structural issues at hand. It makes my art more universal.
I don’t want to be thought of as a cartoonist. I want my low-brow shit to be infiltrating the high-brow world. I want to just flip it on its ass. I think animals are just the best way to represent people at the end of the day [laughs]. With that series, you know each animal represents a different aspect of society
Ariel: Walk me through it?
Adam: Sure. Rather than an eagle, my take on the national bird is the vultures – that’s why it’s displayed with the flag in the background. It’s the first piece in the series and it’s meant to orient people so they know the theme is America politics. Then there’s the saturated pink and green pig. The green background because money and the pig is the businessman. Then there’s the yellow cowardly sheep, which is basically the general population being shepherded around. Then there is the peacock, which is your glitz and glam reality TV culture. The peacock and the sheep go hand in hand because you get to the point of being a peacock and only concern yourself with exterior appearance and keeping up with the Joneses and the status quo. I think ultimately it evolves you to being rolled in with the sheep.
Ariel: Interesting. I took it to represent bourgeois intellectuals.
Adam: The peacock?
Adam: That wasn’t my intention. The peacock is the animal representing one of the seven deadly sins, so that was my thought behind it. But I always enjoy hearing what people take away from it, especially if it is not what I intended because now I could have a whole new narrative. Tell me more what you mean.
Ariel: So for me it’s the smile that makes it what I said. Peacocks represent the regal, the rich, but they are not it. To mix bird metaphors here, they parrot the rhetorical positions of “jobs creators”, and get well kept for it, like birds in a menagerie. I don’t know, maybe it’s just something about that smile that makes me think of William Buckley.
Adam: The thing I love about art is when I do a piece, by the time I am done the narrative has changed and I find things that I draw that I wouldn’t call forced symbolism but triggers “that means that” even though at the time it wasn’t what I intended. See
Ariel: Counter to what we have been talking about, I have a question about The Death of Marat. This piece, is there at particular face that was supposed to be on there?
Adam: No. There was no particular face. I was reinterpreting the well know piece by David. That is actually one of my favorite pieces of David’s. I wrote one of my finals in college on him, basically paralleling him to Fox News and other major news networks because at the end of the day they only report what they are paid to report. If whoever owns the company, like Murdoch, doesn’t like something they are not going to report on it. David was a patron of whoever was in power at the time. Whatever direction the revolution was going and whoever paid him the most, that was who he painted for. So I kind of equated him to a news network of that time. The French revolutionary epoch is so fascinating. It paved the way for so many things, politically, socially and artistically. I’m glad you asked about that piece.
Ariel: Well, I wanted to bring it up as even though your style has changed since then I see within it, almost all of your work really, the same radical, emancipatory spirit that inspired the art of that period.
Adam: Thank you! I’m getting goosebumps. That is a very kind compliment.
Ariel: Yeah, it’s why I like you work so much – it speaks to my head and to my gut.
Adam: Good! I want my work to cause a visceral reaction like that. I want people to walk out of my show feeling unsettled. I don’t claim to have all the solutions to addressing the social grotesqueries that have become banal and commonplace and thus accepted. I want my art to put a question mark in my audience’s head that encourages them to seek some sort of answer. I don’t expect that my work will change the world, but god damn it if it isn’t my hope.
Ariel: Well, if it’s any consolation I can’t stand most of the art that I consume at galleries or museums and yet yours speaks to me.
Adam: Thank you. I mean yeah, as it is conceived today, I am a shitty contemporary artist because I don’t pay attention to what is happening in the world. I mean it’s the commercialised world in this day and age. For the most part, that or you’re a “crafter”. You know? For as pompous as I sounded saying that, I don’t mean to. I’m probably one of the most humble guys. You know?
Ariel: Yeah, I mean, I’ve known you for a long time and you definitely are.
Ariel: Yeah, I get it. I’ve been trying to get into contemporary writers. I mean, it’s hard. They write about bullshit I don’t care about. I mean you can only read so many “troubled home” stories before it’s like… okay. I get it. You had a shitty home life. Now find something other to talk about that’s bigger than you.
Adam: Exactly! All art is really just regurgitation at this point. A lot of what I have seen in contemporary art basically just tries to match the formula of what sold last year. There are handfuls of artists that are doing something real, though fuck if I know who they are. I know they are out there, they have to be, I’m also not going to wade through a bunch of mire just to fin them. I mean, that’s part of the reason I try not to pay attention to “what’s hot”. I don’t want to be inadvertently influenced by anything like that, for better or worse. If I want to be influenced I go back to my heroes like Goya, Basquiat, Deschamps and of course Stedman and Picasso. And speaking of Picasso, actually, his work has a style I’ve been trying to figure out lately how to do. I’ve been trying to do a 2D painting of 3D, by mixing and matching the planes. I always thought that was such an interesting concept – but I want to take it a step further, like paint something illustrating the detritus of our current socio-political climate. You know, where there’s not just one problem but all these different angles. I think a cubist representation of that would be a very honest.
Ariel: But what would that look like? I mean, the way you describe it makes me think of Balzac’s the Unknown Masterpiece, which ends with a brief description of this painting that’s clearly aligned with the Zeitgeist and yet nearly indescribable as a language has yet to come together to structure it’s meaning.
Adam: Honestly, I have no idea yet. I couldn’t even say what the subject would be at the moment but I’ll get there. I use liberty a lot as my subject. So just thinking off the top of my head I imagine it might relate to her. But if I were to do a cubist piece I think it would be, maybe something along the lines of the three bathers painting. Something like I did with the “Now and Then” series with Liberty, Justice and Nature. I would probably do those three women in a cubist style and try and fit as many planes of conflict as I could in there. That may be my project for next year, though I’m not sure.
Ariel: I like the concept and am glad you brought up your “Now and Then” series depicting Nature, Justice and Liberty. I thought was great visually, but I’m honestly a bit wary of the politics of nostalgia. Could you speak on your intentions with it, as the implies something that, say, “Ideal and Actual” does not.
Adam: It never existed fully, no, though at the same time you could say that the pre-Colombian people’s here had something closer. I mean, if you look at all of the social injustices from the start of our country, we’ve never been a fully equal society and a fully just society. With the exception of nature, I don’t think there was ever a truly ideal “Then” for any of the subjects that was fully representative of what we all would love them to be.
As far as liberty goes, I’d also say that was significantly more prevalent prior to the kind of techno-surveillance culture we have not. Not for everybody, slavery, obviously, but I feel that liberty has taken a turn for the worse and I guess that was really the turning point between the then and now.
Ariel: So I’m glad to hear that you feel the “Then” never existed, and is just a rhetorical trope as I was going to get on your case about that. After all, it’s a variant of Donald’s “Make America Great Again”.
Adam: [Laughs] Glad you were ready to call me out. I don’t make art for people to tell me it’s good. I expect to be challenged. I’m actually glad you brought that up because you’re absolutely right and I agree with you 100%. But for the sake of the piece it’s the starting point of a narrative. One that starts out as a fairy tale – this utopia that never existed – and we arrive at this gross truth of what it actually is. I think with this view the “then” is exists as hope as something that we can return to, rather something that we can arrive at for the first time.
Ariel: I like that. It evokes the idea of a return to paradise almost, even thought the then is something that we would be arriving at for the first time. Which all makes me think of a desire armed to return there. Considering that Lake Worth is the home of the Earth First Journal and your works contains a number of radical political themes I was wondering if there has been any sort of exchange between you and them.
Adam: Actually, yes. Earth First has contacted me a few times. Unfortunately we have never really lined up on some of the stuff I have versus what they needed. That’s actually a good reminder for me to reach back out them because now I have a few pieces that might be interesting for them. I love Earth First. I love everything they are doing. Somebody needs to do it.
You know and early on at FAU, like ’07-08, right before I met Cecil and you, I played in an anti-war folk band. I had a percussionist and me on acoustic guitar. I used to play at protests against the Iraq war. I was a member of A.N.S.W.R. Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. I went to Washington DC with them in September when Petraeus was coming out with his new budget report and asking for more money for Iraq. There was big protests going on – not on the news, of course – and we took a van to D.C. We marched to the capital, some friends got arrested. One of the organizers was one of the first men on the ground. His name was Mike and he had a video which went viral. Although there is not much time for it now. I still feel like I am doing my part with painting, because somebody has to.
[We break to have a cigarette outside]
Ariel: Now that I see it in your garage, in front of me, one of the questions I had for you was for you to walk me through The Persistence of Reality. The picture on your website is small, but it is such a huge piece.
Adam: It is so far my best attempt at paying homage to Hieronymus Bosch. This piece basically maps the terrain a barren kind of cultural landscape. The only thing that looks lush and fertile is the facade. This quest for visibility and 15 minutes of fame – reality TV culture – I think is dragging us through the mud as a culture.
So you have here these people lining up to go down to watch framed in a manner that alludes to Bosch’s work, “The Cure of Folly”. Back in the day people used to think that people who did bad things had something in their brain and called the Folly Stone. Because of this belief they, logicially, originated the practice of lobotomies originated. They would take out a piece of the brain thinking that would cure them of evil, which is why there are medieval tools in the picture. Up here you have the US Capital Building, the Whitehouse and the flames with this big monster. You have the Hollywood spotlights going. Nobody is paying attention. These are two of my favorite figures that I have come up with. You basically notice that the eyeball around it looks a lot like a vagina. The tear duct is like a clit. So I kind of flipped around, stuck an eyeball in there and created this kind of Uncle Sam foyer figures. You know, kind of representative of the NSA.
Adam: The lush fertile area is just a backdrop. The stiletto wearing vultures. It’s the transformation of what was once the sacred feminine, into this profane “women are bitches and whores”. It’s just a fuckfest down here.
Ariel: Considering that we’ve been talking about animal’s relationship to your work, I like the animal masks that you have them wearing.
Adam: You could chalk it up to the laziness of not wanting to paint a bunch of faces.
Ariel: Did you go to school for art? Or are you self-taught?
Adam: A little bit of both. I went to school for studio arts/graphic design but I still haven’t technically graduated FAU. I learned a lot, but basically I kept going to get access to materials. There’s a number of professors there who have helped shape the seriousness with which I do my work. Of all my art training, what I took the most from was my art history classes, more than the practical application and the studio classes. The studio classes were a chance for me to exercise what I had already been doing, but with new tools.
Ariel: So how do you think your art has changed over time?
Adam: One of the things that I struggled with earlier on in my career was arriving at my own style that was separate from my influences. That was the struggle. I think where I am now compared to where I was 10 years ago and it’s a whole different world. To go deeper, there was a point where I had to break down what I was doing and rebuild it. This is no small task, you know, a whole new world had to be built upon the old. I adhere to that concept in a lot of aspects in life. I think that it’s the most productive way to go about anything at the end of the day – something’s not working, you tear it down and build upon it. Now, for me to pick up the pen and the brush and have it be fulfilling, I really have to be saying something. If I’m not saying anything, it’s a waste of my time… unless I’m getting paid [laughs]. I’ve got a little one to feed. I’m not going to be the one to paint a still-life with a bowl of fruit in it.
Ariel: Or like just a nude.
Adam: Right. I mean it’s not saying anything.
Ariel: Right?! I mean love women. I will ogle and appreciate and blah, blah, blah. But when it comes to my taste in art, however, I need to have some kind of more redeeming, edifying element. I want my naked women to be leading the people.
Adam: Exactly, like Lady Liberty Leading the People. That’s one of my favorites. I actually got to see that one in person at the Louvre.
Ariel: Oh. So on the about you section on your website, you say that you frame your work as portraits of beauty by means of crude exaggeration. Do you think that the anti-septic nature of current socio-political discourse is detrimental.
Adam: Yeah, everything today has got to be so prim and proper and clean and the choice of what people emphasize as being important is just so askew. A lot of times nobody can tell it like it is because so many people have become over-sensitive cry-babies. I mean we live in a culture where you get a trophy just for fucking showing up. That’s what it’s become.
I don’t know when it happened, but I think my generation was when that shift happened. I’m 27 and I can remember my senior class was the first class ever at Cardinal Newman where no one that graduated received senior superlatives in the yearbooks. Too many mothers complained that their son or daughter wasn’t picked for something, so they stopped doing it. I don’t know why this generation has stopped knowing what it was to earn something. I also went to a private Catholic school so a lot of the children were privileged too.
Ariel: I knew a few girls there from when I was in high school, so I know what you mean.
Adam: Haha, yeah… So I was the bottom bracket of the kids at that school. Which I enjoyed because you know, I could be my own person. But I think that the societal discourse of giving trophies just for showing up-
Ariel: We are going to talk about some adult things, “trigger warning”.
Adam: Yeah, and I don’t see how sugar-coating everything and being so politically correct that there is not an ounce of truth in what you are saying, none of that s anything that can help bring us forward. Nobody wants to hear the truth, nobody wants to hear the bad stuff. I’m not saying that foul language etc should be a part… that’s not what we are talking about. Being PC all the time doesn’t get us anywhere though. You can’t have a positive and a positive and expect a reaction at the end of the day. If you break it down to physics.
Ariel: Well I mean, I think at least from the developmental sense. Everybody fails at some point.
Adam: You have to fail and you need to learn how to deal with it. It’s a given that I want the best for my son, that I want him to succeed. But I don’t want him to succeed without failing first on his own. I don’t want him to be destitute, living in a gutter. Failure is a part of life, it is how you grow. Sometimes you run into those walls in your life where you just have to make a decision and hope it pans out. Hopefully you come out smelling like a rose. It’s a practice of to keeping your wits about you, you know?
Relating this to my art, I think about when I stopped drawing with a pencil and started drawing with a pen. I was forced not to throw the piece away, and make something out of the mistake. That’s been something that I live my life by. I think everybody is expecting to go through life with their own personal filter when what they really need is to grow a thicker skin. Nothing is the end of the world.
Ariel: Except global climactic change.
Adam: This is true [laughs]. But even that, I think the anti-septic nature with which that political message is delivered may be doing a social disservice. Treat the public like they can handle how many billions invested in housing and infrastructure will be lost due to catastrophe and maybe something more substantive can be done about it. Instead of the honesty we have fucking Rick Scott preventing state workers from even using the phrase “climate change”. What a sad joke! It’s reasons like that which is why you can’t have an honest debate. It’s just arguing feelings.
Ariel: Yeah, totally! Like I was saying outside, I’m increasingly tired of trying to have real discussions with people online. I don’t talk about things I don’t know about but nobody else seems to think that this matters. They want what that guy [I point to the illustrations of Donald Trump] gives them, they want feelings rather than a complex, nuanced historically based perspective.
Adam: Or they want a sound board where they can bounce their shit off and hear themselves talk, or hear it regurgitated back to them in an agreeable manner. It’s all bullshit and just adds to the veil that is clouding our perception of what reality is. Not everybody is going to get along. That’s just a fucking fact. Find out your differences. Agree to disagree and if it don’t really matter then move the fuck on. Don’t get so butt-hurt if shit doesn’t go your way. If shit doesn’t go your way, maybe you should figure out a way to make it so that shit does go your way. Not in a negative sense though.
Ariel: You frame it in a way that I am wholly in accord with. One some of these important issues lets relate to each other on the actions that need be taken together as a community and through that we’ll heal some of our own issues.
Ariel: I love how you are all about doing something creatively, that I do as well in my writing, which is openly assimilating forms and styles from other places. A couple of other artists I know are so caught up in trying to be completely original that I think it hinders their ability to compose something great.
Adam: You can’t be original now. We’re just reshaping the past in a way so that the present can understand it. If I was so focused on creating something new, I would be wasting so much energy that I would end up with nothing. What I am creating is original enough, but it’s also an amalgamation of many things past – as all art is. History isn’t some thing, it’s what is happening now. And there are always smart, talented people who have said and done better than we can currently dream of creating.
Adam: Exactly, and my heroes have always been those people who said it better. So I think by thinking that you can do it better in your own way is awfully arrogant.
Ariel: And neurotic.
Adam: Yeah. That’s the thing as well, seeking that kind of false comforting thought means that there is no drive to better oneself. Why try any harder in a format that other people have already mastered? Because there is the easy way and the hard way and it’s only in the latter time you really learn who you are.
If I can be vulnerable right now, that is one of the reasons I try to be so serious about the outside things that I tap into for my work. Whether that is historical subjects or different artists. I research because I enjoy and love learning and research. I write different notes and ideas down. I have a little pad that I sketch the ideas and inspirations for my bigger pieces. It’s a juvenile approach.
Kind of like throwing a bunch of shit against the wall and seeing what sticks. It often starts when I am trying to fall asleep. In order to do that I try to use ideating sleep rituals, it helps create a pattern of creative thought. Hopefully I remember it when I wake up. Some I do, some I don’t. I feel like the ones I don’t remember weren’t meant to be created. And anyway I don’t have the time to do every idea. The ones I do remember end up being fairly successful and what I want them to be. So I basically start with a general idea that begins with me trying to fall asleep and then when Thursday-Friday comes around I get the opportunity to put pen to paper. For pieces there is a lot of research involved whether it is researching history or artists or different composition styles, or researching different design clips that I can use. More often than not it is body parts or mechanical things. I’ll print them out and see what kinds of shapes I can make and how it can work. Sometimes I scrap it, but a lot of times I’ll just lay the stuff out, stick it on the paper and force it to dictate the piece to me, based on what sticks out to me at the time. It’s a push and pull. A lot of times, what I find out during the process will tell me something different to what I started with and I’ll end up meeting in the middle. Then all of the vibrancy, perversity, saturation – everything in my work – has to speak to something. Nothing is arbitrary. If it’s a line somewhere, it’s for a reason.
The way I see it’s like, good art is a psychic weapon that attacks things. This is my spell casting book.
Ariel: Then you must be like Hermoine, I see that you’re constantly making new works and it’s all so great. You are much more disciplined than I am as well. It looks great though.
Adam: I try to maintain discipline. Gonzo style. With everything around the house, being a new dad, I put in at least 10-15 hours a week on my own work. It’s a habit. Heh. The things around the house I need to write down, keep a schedule for work. Not for my own stuff though, I don’t want it to feel like work but second nature. It took discipline to get to this point, but I knew if it didn’t I wouldn’t get to this point. If I have a goal, I will work non-stop. If I don’t have some big project at the end of the line, it’s harder. So thankfully, I’ve got this show coming up. It will definitely be something they have never seen before.
Did I tell you one of my marketing tactics I’m going to do is campaign signs and the name of the show is going to be called “Nobody is safe” and it’s going to be put all throughout Cleveland. Super bright posters. Red, white and blue. It’s where we are right now.
Ariel: After this series, do you have anything you were thinking about next.
Adam: I was thinking of doing a show out west in California next summer. The Dead Kennedy’s are a huge influence on me and what I say and do in my work. They are the first band that I feel has the same velocity and crassness but still poignant at the same time. I feel like it is what a want to achieve with my work. A juvenile yet sensitive rejection of authority.
So my idea of a follow up show would be doing a series on Dead Kennedy’s and hopefully getting Jello, if not the whole band involved somehow.
Ariel: Who knows, maybe he’ll end up reading this and be as taken in with your art as I have been so he’ll reach out to you.
If you’re in the area, make sure to check out Adam’s upcoming showing, information below.