When Ryan Adams does anything, he does a lot of it. These days, on hiatus from music, he fancies himself a painter, and last night his debut collection was on display at Morrison Hotel Gallery in downtown Manhattan. The work was a hodgepodge series, largely of acrylics on canvas, utilizing hasty but deliberate brush strokes and a New York City motif, featuring upwards of 50 canvases, a few drawings and collages. I have the urge to call the show “typical Adams,” but am loath to describe what that means. There were a lot of paintings, though.
Adams has afforded himself the opportunity to become a visual artist by most famously playing music―and lots of it. After two albums with the band Whiskeytown, his prolific career (both solo and with The Cardinals) includes a handful of EPs and ten full-length records, three of which were released in 2005 alone, including one double-album entitled Cold Roses. Then there are the multitudes of unofficial and unreleased songs, including those by his various online personas such “black metal” band Werewolph, “hard rock” group Sleazy Handshake, and MC alter-ego, DJ Reggie. Adams is the author of two collections of stories and poetry―Hello Sunshine and Infinity Blues―and has recently begun contributing a largely indecipherable column about vintage video games and Danzig to the web log The Awl.
Fans and detractors tend to agree on a few points about the man: Heartbreaker is a classic album; he has no filter; and his legacy would have benefitted from some quality control, but that drink is drunk. Adams is not a people pleaser, though his brattiness in the face of criticism and with the press would indicate that he yearns to be. He is a perennial prankster and over the span of his 15-year career some publication somewhere must have used the headline “Jackass of All Trades.” If not, here it is.
Two weeks ago, Adams became Morrison Hotel's first “artist in residence,” painting daily in a gallery space that splits the former real-estate of legendary punk club CBGB with upscale men's line John Varvatos. As per usual, Adams put himself on display along with his work, painting in the front of the gallery, but the auctioning of his new work would send proceeds to the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, a New York City non-profit fighting homelessness and AIDS. Doubtlessly feeling the ghosts of punk past breathing down his creative neck, Adams addressed his artistic blip on the space's historical radar with scribbled signs in Morrison Hotel's front window: one read, “Not Funny Mr. Adams” and another, “Joey Ramone is Turning Over in His Grave.” A similar sign in the back corner of the gallery had another slogan: “If Art Is the New Music… Then Turn It Down!!”
The opening, meanwhile, was a pleasant and celebratory affair. Credit philanthropy with squeeze-drying the pretension from the night, but honestly, posing would be hard in a place that brands itself as a “rock-historical art gallery.” There was little to no sneering, as is customary at art openings, and though there was security at the door, fans and friends alike seemed to populate the space. I overheard a young guy in clear Oakley glasses notice that there was a lot of “fancy pussy” in the building. Crass, yes, but Mary-Louise Parker and Ann Dexter-Jones were both present.
The musician Jesse Malin presided playfully over the charity auction as Adams played art handler/manager/creator, lugging massive canvases to the makeshift stage, deciding on arbitrary starting bids and titling the works on the spot. One was artfully named “I Don't Know,” but still snagged a four-figure sale. Even if you don't like the art, buy it anyway, Adams explained before the selling began. It was, as they say, for a good cause. Bidders waved paper plates with scrawled identification numbers to signify an offer, and prices hovered in the low thousands for the six or so works that sold. When bidding got sluggish, someone―possibly Adams himself―exclaimed, “Feed them more booze!” and everyone chuckled.
And if the charity wasn't enough to pardon Adams for his artiste excesses, the man looked genuinely happy. Battling a reputation that paints him as a pissy sometimes-addict, he appeared docile and almost serene, if a tad awkward. The crowded gallery was complicated spatially by a long snaking line of fans hoping to have a piece of merchandise autographed, while people snapped digital photos and Adams grinned. A Parisian twentysomething claimed to have flown from France to give Adams his band's demo. “I wish he had some reservations,” someone said to me as we observed the signing table. Adams' smile and politeness were profoundly un-rockstar, to say nothing of his recent marriage to pop starlet Mandy Moore. But luckily for his cred among the less earnest of his followers, questions do remain about Adams' motivations: Does he crave the limelight and positive press? Was a portion of this night for fame and glory? Would anyone really pay $45,000 for an average four-canvas painting of a Manhattan skyline? Probably.