Before we get started, there are a couple of things you should know about Mark Adams, big guy with beard and beret: He was once a drinker of Scotch whisky; now he’s a connoisseur of colorful cocktails and has little use for Scotch. Of equal relevance: Adams is an artist whose paintings once looked remarkably like photographs; now his photographs look remarkably like paintings.
Such a journey marks visual art in the time of our lives — from the days of oils and brushes, darkrooms and film, to the digital age of ubiquitous cameras, high definition images and the images everywhere on social media.
But that’s only part of the reason I bring this up.
The booze is the other part.
Let’s go over this.
Early in his career, while represented by a gallery in Philadelphia, Mark Adams, now 68, painted theatrical scenes — dancers and mimes, that sort of thing — but he’s been primarily a portraitist over the last four decades, and a productive and sought-after one.
Some years ago, he had a brush with photorealism. He painted large images that appeared to be blowups of photographs. I saw them in the late 1980s — or it might have been the early 1990s — and they were astonishing.
Photorealism was once a thing for some painters, most of whom worked from photographs of their subjects. Adams was good at it.
But then, one day, came digital cameras and high definition photography. For Adams at least, there didn’t seem to be much point in continuing to spend a month on a painting to achieve photographic quality. The form lost its allure. So he focused his attention on portraiture at his studio in Baltimore County.
Here’s where the drinking comes in.
At the end of the day, when it was time to have a sip of a distilled beverage, Adams’ first choice was Scotch on the rocks. He didn’t think about mixed drinks until the pandemic.
“It was April 2020,” he says, “and we were sitting around, wondering what to do with ourselves because we were stuck in the house.”
Adams’ wife, Susan, directed him to a video of David Lebovitz, author of “Drinking French: The Iconic Cocktails, Apéritifs, and Café Traditions of France, with 160 Recipes,” and suddenly a door opened to a whole new world of spirits, liqueurs, modifiers and expensive cocktail cherries to which Adams had paid no attention.
He started mixing drinks and enjoying them. He started acquiring ingredients he’d never heard of — St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, Suze, Bigallet China-China, Bonal Gentiane-Quina and something called Velvet Falernum.
Then he started taking pictures of the cocktails with his cellphone, posting them on social media with everyone else who feels a need to share an image of what they’re about to eat or drink.
But, of course, being an artist, Adams was not satisfied with the cocktail photos he sent to Instagram.
Now, before we go on, there’s something else you should know: At some point last year — Adams doesn’t know when exactly — he fractured a bone in his leg and could not stand at his easel. Between that injury and the pandemic, Adams did not expect a lot of portrait work in 2020.
“So I started taking computer master classes on still life,” he says. “One was called, ‘Finding Rembrandt,’ which was all about lighting techniques of Rembrandt, and cross lighting. I broke out my strobe lights and started discovering the world of light and lighting. And it was [photographer] Joel Grimes’ master class on still life that got me thinking that I can do the cocktail thing and do it better.”
He certainly can. He certainly did.
More than a year later, Adams has created with a Nikon D300 dozens of inspired still lifes and whimsical images featuring cocktails. He does this a few times each week, posting his whimsy to Instagram.
Some of the images reference great artists (Dali, Mondrian) while others are inspired by literary characters and musicians. Many feature the Falstaffian Adams himself — always with cocktails in hand — as Santa Claus or Friar Tuck.
Each image comes with a recipe, either one of Adams’ making or one he found from the many sources, online and in print, that he used as a guide into the Brobdingnagian world of cocktails.
His Baltimore Bloody Mary features a likeness of a crab made from spiced beans, okra and a couple of green olives. Adams is a designer, an art director and a comic. What most impresses me is this: Some of his best cocktail-centric photographs evoke the still lifes of the 17th century. He’s having fun but the result is seriously good. The lighting and the arrangements of fabric and objects come together like something from the Dutch Golden Age. And I told Adams this.
“Thank you for noticing that,” he said.
I’m struck by the journey of this big man with beard and beret — from the photorealist painter I encountered many years ago to, now, an accomplished portraitist whose side gig in Happy Hour photography evokes the old masters. It’s joyous fun, born in the joyless pandemic. Cheers.
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Check out Adams on Instagram, at artistwithacocktail, and a photo gallery he made available to us at baltimoresun.com