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.
He liked the idea that art could be an escape. Painting, he saw, could be a way of making decisions and breaking rules.
When it came time to choose a career that would pay the bills, Adelsberger enrolled at Towson University with an eye toward studying industrial design, and graduated a few months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Jobs were scarce," he says. "I couldn't even get a craft store to hire me. But at the time I was participating in a few group exhibits that were getting a good response. Every time I'd start doubting myself, I'd sell something or get an award for enough money to cover my studio expenses."
One grant sent Adelsberger to Berlin in June 2008, where he immersed himself in the vibrant arts scene. The kind of work that he saw there and the private apartments in which it was displayed inspired him to turn his own Baltimore studio into an art gallery.
That fall, he opened the Nudashank gallery with the artist Alex Ebstein in the H&H Building on Baltimore's west side. Nudashank showcased artists in their 20s and quickly became known as a place where careers could be launched.
After five years, the gallery had a growing reputation for spotting new talent, but still wasn't making much money. What's worse, Adelsberger and Ebstein found they were neglecting their own art. Last August, the duo closed Nudashank.
"We made great connections and we had an offer to open a gallery in New York," Adelsberger said. "But it took so much time that some years, I only made one or two pieces of my own."
It wasn't as though the five years of working on the gallery were a waste of time. Adelsberger enjoyed working with artists and found that the aesthetic questions they were exploring inspired his own painterly investigations. The techniques that these artists used pushed him to devise methods for solving aesthetic problems.
"The years that Alex and I spent running Nudashank," Adelsberger says, "had an impact on the artwork I'm creating today."