Seth Adelsberger is a 34-year-old Baltimore painter and printmaker. He does not have a master's degree from an art school, he is not represented by a gallery, and he has not won a prestigious prize.
Nonetheless, on Sunday, a solo show that distills Adelsberger's visual experiments over the past five years opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The exhibit is an unusual honor for an unproven painter, signaling to the art world nationwide that museum curators think Adelsberger is a talent worth watching.
"For an emerging artist, this is an amazing opportunity," Adelsberger says. "Because of this show, a gallery in Los Angeles already is expressing interest in working with me."
"Front Room: Seth Adelsberger" consists of 11 artworks. In some, the artist puts art-making materials on display that normally remain hidden from view. In other works, Adelsberger explores the process by which once groundbreaking and profoundly unsettling aesthetic insights can grow familiar and even banal over time.
"Seth is very gifted," said Kristen Hileman, the museum's curator of contemporary art, who stumbled upon Adelsberger's work in 2012 while visiting the studios of local artists.
"The kind of experimenting he's doing is similar to what's going on right now in New York and Europe, but even among this group, Seth's work is exceptional."
To her eye, Adelsberger's work succeeds on multiple levels.
"His work is very strong visually and aesthetically," she says. "His paintings really grab your eye. But they're also very interesting conceptually and historically. They relate back to artworks done in the late 1950s and 1960s by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Frank Stella, and that gives what Seth is doing a lot of heft."
For instance, Adelsberger's two "Submersion Paintings" explore the aesthetic possibilities of gesso — the thick, white primer that artists traditionally use to seal canvases and to create a uniform surface on which they can paint.
But Adelsberger didn't prime his canvases in the usual way. Instead, the artist covered one raw and untreated canvas in magenta paint, and a second in teal. He then spread the gesso over the surface of the canvas in thick, textured drips, rivulets and loops. He allowed the work to dry and then covered the canvas with a finishing layer of paint.
As Hileman puts it: "These monochromatic canvases appear to glow as if lit from within."
In his two "Border Paintings," Adelsberger painted a canvas with one of the "all-over" designs that Pollock made famous in his splatter paintings. Then, Adelsberger cut away the entire canvas and wrapped the cloth pieces around the four sides of the frame. In the center, where the image normally appears, visitors now gaze at an empty museum wall encased inside a pretty rectangle.
"I'm exploring the way that art can lose its original intent and purity and become merely decorative," Adelsberger says.
Even an activity seemingly as mundane as shopping for carpet can yield aesthetic insights for the artist.
On a recent shopping trip, he was struck by the way that carpet samples incorporate abstract designs that once were considered profoundly unsettling. Over the decades, Adelsberger realized, the innovations of the abstract expressionists have become so accepted that they now are an ubiquitous element of home furnishings.
Adelsberger photographed the carpet squares and digitally manipulated the designs to heighten the carpet's pile and pattern. He printed the photograph onto rectangles of actual white carpet, framed the squares in an acrylic case and hung them on the walls. The result is his "Carpet Sample Set."
"Seth represents a generation of painters who are on the forefront right now in the dialogue about abstract painting," Hileman says. "I wanted Baltimore audiences to see important examples of this worldwide trend by an artist who happens to live in Baltimore."
Adelsberger, who grew up in Frederick County, is practical-minded by nature and says he never set out to be an artist.
He knew he was gifted visually. He's been messing around with drawing materials and paints since he was in kindergarten, and remembers being powerfully impressed by a cubist work by an unknown Italian artist that he saw in the 1990s while on a high school field trip to the BMA.