Seeing new stories: Bolanle Adeboye lights up a moment in untitled show at Live Arts

Bolanle Adeboye combines original artwork and digital collage in a unique show of light boxes at Live Arts. Photo by Martyn Kyle Bolanle Adeboye combines original artwork and digital collage in a unique show of light boxes at Live Arts. Photo by Martyn Kyle

Our ability to look at art—to see color, shape, texture—comes from light.

We’ll spare you an in-depth science lesson, but most basically, light reflects off objects and into the eye. Cells in the retina (at the back of the eye) convert light into electrical impulses, which the optic nerve sends to the brain. The brain then produces the image we see.

“It all derives from light,” says visual artist Bolanle Adeboye. “I’m just fascinated by it.”

Adeboye is always painting light: the way it falls across a child’s cheek, the way it flickers in the night sky, how it traverses the surface of a bubble. And in her newest works, 11 light box paintings currently on view at Live Arts, light illuminates not just these paintings, but the path of her creative journey.

For this untitled series, Adeboye scanned a number of her original paintings and digitally collaged them together into new vignettes. She had the resulting images printed onto backlit film, a thin, transparent plastic material commonly used for those glowing fast-food menus and bus station advertisements. Once she had the prints, she slid them into light boxes—essentially low-profile flat panel ceiling lights ubiquitous in office buildings—for display on the second and third floors of Live Arts, between the large windows overlooking Water Street.

Those familiar with Adeboye’s work will see that many of her usual motifs—sunrises, sunsets, night skies, water, bubbles, forest scenes, flowers, trees, children—are present in this series, combined in new ways, to tell new stories.

In “Park Kids,” a little girl spray paints a sign near a parking garage, a water tower looming large in the background. A little boy kneels on the ground near a sapling growing out of a crack in the pavement—has he planted it, or broken the pavement to make room for its growth? In their eyes, all it takes to turn a parking lot into a park is to “declare it,” says Adeboye. Spray paint the sign and nurture the tree, to make it so. “In real life, nothing is that simple, but the way kids approach problems simplifies them in a way that I think is beautiful, even if it’s not entirely practical,” she says. “And that’s what art is, pretty much.”

Children often create with boundless emotion and without self-consciousness, says Adeboye, and she finds that inspiring—painting children is her constant reminder to do the same.

One example is “Dawn Soon,” which Adeboye made in the wake of her friend (local sculptor) Gabe Allan’s death in March of this year. In it, a transparent, headless man walks alone at night down a thickly wooded path. Adeboye’s not sure why the man has no head—it just happened while she was making it—but she knows the piece is about losing oneself “to the big expanse.” There’s something foreboding and dark about it, she says, but there’s a lot of light, and lightness, too.

As Adeboye created these works—paintings digitized and essentially presented on screens—she says she thought a lot about 3D and special effects used in movies and television, how they “get more and more and more and more intense, with all the motion.” At first glance, the light boxes look like screens. A viewer might expect the moon in “The Players” to spin like a disco ball. Or for the bubbles in the “Sink and Swim” diptych to float to the surface outside the frame as the nearby clusters of neon flowers rock back and forth in the tide. The images are visually still, but we expect them to move, and Adeboye’s interested in that dissonance.

She wondered about the power of having one moment, rather than a whole series of moments, to tell a story. “It’s an exercise in forcing me to try and figure it out: If you’re only going to do one moment, it has to be the right moment,” she says.

And so Adeboye’s work lights up moments that stir plenty of intellectual and emotional movement, a phenomenon of light that is not exactly explicable by science.

What’s more, this experimental series has sparked new creative movement for the artist. Adeboye’s found that she likes working digitally. She can dial down the cyan and boost the magenta on a flower petal and decide whether she likes it or not before hitting delete, a freedom that’s practically impossible to explore in paint. But she can’t imagine leaving painting behind entirely.

“Ideally, I’d always want to ride the line between the two,” says Adeboye, adding that the light box pieces work precisely because the textures are created physically, with paint and the painting surface. The combination of digital and physical media opens up a rather free, very wide, playful world that Adeboye’s game to romp around.

“At this point, I’m just trusting that none of this stuff is a destination,” she says about the light boxes and what viewers might see in her future shows. “The path is so much longer.”

Bolanle Adeboye combines original artwork and digital collage in a unique show of light boxes at Live Arts. She’ll have a closing reception, with a performance by cellist (and Adeboye’s housemate) Wes Swing, on June 8.

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