Chicago-based visual artist, Adam DeVarney: The Isolated Hero, creates mixed media pieces involving collage and illustration wood in his Pilsen studio. The male subjects of DeVarney’s work recall the icons and heroes of American culture– cowboys, astronauts, pilots, and powerful business men– but they are isolated in their respective frames, depicted with vacant eyes and twisted facial expressions that reflect an inner struggle. A native of Burlington, Vermont, Adam graduated in 2006 from the Pratt Institute with a B.F.A. concentrating in drawing and illustration. He’s exhibited his work since 2009 across the U.S. and has been in numerous group shows and most recently, a solo show at Rotofugi Gallery in Chicago.
CHM: How old were you when you started creating art? When did you know that you wanted to make it your career?
AD: Depends on your definition of “art”. I’ve been creative since before I can remember. My parents and peers were very supportive of my art growing up. There was never a shortage of paper, markers, crayons and pencils. I didn’t really seriously go after art as a career until I had gotten laid off from my semi conductor manufacturing job in 2008. I was trying to find “normal” day jobs as a career, but when that didn’t seem to be working for me I figured I had nothing to lose by giving art a serious try.
CHM: What’s your chosen medium? How has your art evolved over the years in terms of medium, style and subject?
AD: Mixed media is the best description of my process. It originally started just as acrylic drawings and paintings. I was making paintings of flying boats and cars and other totally random stuff. It was all pretty cartoony and whimsical. Then I started to collage my drawings and later incorporated found images. I was interested in re-contextualizing the imagery and creating a dream like narrative where the new context was serendipitously created through the juxtaposition of the images. The biggest shift was probably for the Godspeed show I had at Sacred Gallery in NYC back in 2011. It was a two man show with artist Casey Diebold. I decided to focus the entire series on WWII fighter pilots and 60’s era cosmonauts and astronauts. I had this idea that they were these lost souls in space and time. They took on a haunting, soulless presence that for whatever reason really resonated with me. Since then, my work has focused primarily on different characters and their ambiguously vacant presences. Most recently, I’ve begun approaching these figures in a more narrative perspective, inspired by old Men’s Adventure pulp magazines.
CHM: Describe your practice– do you pre-visualize each piece or is the process more organic? How many hours go into each piece?
AD: Lately, because I’ve been going in a more narrative direction, I’ll have a story or vignette in mind. I draw the figure first and then start pulling together relative imagery and collage material that support the piece. It can really be a chaotic mess though, and often times doesn’t really have a specific order. Sometimes a lyric from a song will spawn an idea, sometimes just a particular image I see in a book as I flip through it. I also prefer to work in series, so I’ll frequently play off of previous works with variations on the same idea or other parts of the story. An individual piece typically takes 30-40hrs to complete depending on size and complexity. When I’m working on a series, I’ll often have multiple pieces going at a time to speed things up.
CHM: You work with found, vintage imagery– what canons do you mine from? What era’s visual culture are you most drawn to?
AD: I pull from all kinds of sources. I love printed material predating the 1980’s. My top favorites are How-To’s and books on animals or ecology. I pull from all sorts of things though, not just books. I’ll delaminate cardboard packaging, old office supplies, index cards, whatever.
CHM: You’re originally from the East Coast, how did you decide to base your practice in Chicago?
AD: Love, as corny as that sounds. I was feeling limited back home in Vermont. The town was super supportive of the arts but lacked the exposure and scale to really grow as an artist. My work appeals to a more urban audience and I prefer the urban environment anyway. My girlfriend moved to Chicago to pursue her Master’s at Depaul University and I followed after her about a year later. I’d have been happy in any of the bigger cities like NYC, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, but I wanted to be in the city with the girl I love. That just happened to be Chicago, and I love it here.
CHM: What visual artists do you admire? What’s the last gallery or museum show you attended?
AD: This is really an endless list so I’ll keep it short. Dave Kinsey, Shepard Fairey, FAILE, Morning Breath, CYRCLE, Mathew Woodson and the list just goes on and on. The last show I attended was Epyon 5 at Galerie F here in Chicago. The last museum event I attended was the Daniel Clowes exhibit at the MCA.
CHM: How do your other interests or hobbies contribute to your visual practice?
AD: Skateboarding has been a big part of my life for the past 15-16 years. There’s no doubt that the culture and lifestyle of skateboarding has helped shape my aesthetic preferences. I also love old obscure music. I love the lyrics, the stories, and the emotions a song can create. This has continually been a driving force in my work. I often play music that suits a piece I’m working on to put myself in the right state of mind.
CHM: What challenges do you face as an artist? Who (either a person or community of folks) do you turn to for advice/inspiration/critiques?
AD: Getting the right exposure and paying the bills are a couple of the biggest challenges I think most artists face. I rely on my entire network for advice, inspiration, and critiques. Whether they’re family, friends, other artists, or gallery personnel, they all play a critical role in the shaping of an artists career and helping them succeed.
CHM: What demographic purchases your pieces? What advice would you give to a fellow artist looking to show and sell his or her work in Chicago?
AD: It’s a pretty mixed bag which is pretty awesome to me that such a wide audience can appreciate my work. For the most part it’s people that are familiar with street culture that really gravitate to my work, which is always kind of funny to me because I am not street artist myself. As far as advice, I would say know yourself. Know what you as an artist are and what you are not. If you’re unsure, say yes to everything that comes your way, make some mistakes, and learn from them. You’ll figure out your path soon enough. Other than that, just be kind and genuine to the people that support you.
CHM: What can we expect from you in the future? Where can we see your work next?
AD: I currently have some originals and prints available at Galerie F in Chicago but I’m still figuring out my calendar for 2014 so you’ll just have to stay tuned.
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Adam DeVarney: The Isolated Hero
Written by Leilani Wertens