“When my kindergarten teacher asked me what my father did I said, ‘He puts monkeys into refrigerators with wires in their heads,'” says Mark Adkins. “My teacher later told my father, ‘Mark has a very vivid imagination,’ and my father replied, ‘That’s pretty much what I do.'” His memories of his psychologist father showing him the monkeys he was experimenting on as well as brain diagrams helped inspire his ten untitled drawings at Gescheidle. They’re creepy, but they’re also compelling, with a dark humor and precise, fine details that make them seem a bit like scientific illustrations. In one, a glass vessel above a mound encases a human head that’s open at the top and has a tree growing out of it, the grass beside the mound suggesting human hair. In another, a broken glass dome atop a shrouded shape with a protruding tree limb contains a tiny smiling monkey sitting in a bowl.
Adkins’s mother, who’s Japanese, and his father separated when he was eight or nine, and he and his younger brother stayed with her in Los Angeles. She didn’t speak English well, worked long hours, and slept late, and after she was in a car crash the boys went to live in Oregon with their father, who filed for divorce and later remarried. When Adkins was 12 the family moved to Springfield, Illinois, then to a nearby small town, where his appearance attracted attention for the first time. “People would say, ‘I can tell you’re something, but I can’t tell exactly what,'” he says. He often found the town boring in high school. “I didn’t like to bowl, and I didn’t like beer,” he says. “Our big thing was to drive into Springfield to see a movie and go to McDonald’s.” He also spent a lot of time walking around cemeteries. “I was fascinated by old tombstones, those big mausoleums, how people like to have these ornate monuments to themselves,” he says. “I would photograph some. It’s a morbid curiosity, I guess. I still feel drawn to cemeteries.” When he was 17 his adored stepmother moved back to the west coast. “I didn’t see it coming,” he says. “I felt devastated.”
As an art student in the early 80s Adkins began drawing lone figures in rooms, and his work became increasingly dystopian. Isolation is still a theme, and his drawings often contain tombs or tomblike structures. The weird mix of human, animal, plant, and inanimate shapes is partly a reflection of the comics and science fiction he once read, though he says he’s also been influenced by artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Charles Sheeler, and Yves Tanguy. He’s been working as an installer at the Art Institute since 1990, and a recent inspiration for his drawings has been Chicago’s decimated west side, which he sees as he rides the el between the city and Oak Park, where he and his wife moved in 2003. “There’s the Brach’s candy factory–a huge complex that’s totally abandoned–and some pretty desolated industrial areas,” he says. “There’s one with piles of sand and rocks and trucks parked nearby. I don’t know what they’re doing with those materials, but it looks like a ruin.”
Some of Adkins’s drawings include barbed wire. Many seem like visions of a postapocalyptic future. In one a faintly red shape with tubelike horns reminds me of a human heart, but he mentions the prostheses being fitted to Americans injured in Iraq. “I haven’t quite figured out whether that’s supposed to be fleshy or of some other material,” he says. “The natural and man-made are coming together.”
When Through 8/27
Where Gescheidle, 118 N. Peoria, fourth floor
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.