The Cost of War with Emily L. R. Adams

Emily L. R. Adams (NAP #117) uses motor oil to create beautiful and evocative monoprints. Featuring prints from U.S. newspapers that quite physically depict the faces of the casualties of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, she ties in the medium of the motor oil as an underlying commentary on both the human cost of and monetary investment in war.

Emily L. R. Adams | Cost of Oil [US Casualties - Afghanistan and Iraq Wars], motor oil and ink on panel, 40 x 40 inches, 2014.

Her work is familiar in that viewers get the sense that they have seen the images before, though it is hard to put your finger on how and why. The recast newspaper images are at once haunting, tragic, and moving, challenging us to consider our role in the war and how we remember both the war and those we have lost in it. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

Ellen Caldwell: When I saw your work in New American Paintings, I was really intrigued by the unique process you’ve developed, using motor oil to create monoprints. Could you please explore and explain your process?

Emily L. R. Adams: These monoprints were created using the screen printing process. Unlike other traditional methods of printmaking; this technique lends itself to a wider range of alternative mediums and a multitude of substrates. I am always looking for ways to keep things exciting by playing around with non-traditional materials. This can sometimes lead to much frustration, but is often extremely rewarding. I developed this technique of printing with motor oil after much experimentation. After coming up with the initial idea, I actually learned how to change the oil in my car. The viscosity of motor oil is very thin, the biggest challenge was to figure out how to keep the image from bleeding too much. It's really a matter of knowing the nature of your materials and knowing how to control them and when to let go.

Emily L. R. Adams | Inflation [US Casualties - Afghanistan and Iraq Wars], 
28x36", Motor oil, on canvas, 2014.

EC: To build on that, how did you come up with this process? Was motor oil important symbolically as well?

EA: Yes, in fact, the motor oil is an essential aspect of this work. I am a true believer in the idea of “medium as message.” Meaning that my choice of materials are just as significant to my concept as the subject matter is. I work with a lot of different mediums, and the outcome directly relates to the message that I am hoping to convey. The best way to describe myself is as a photographer whose output is printmaking and challenges the traditional parameters of painting. I came up with this process based on the images and determining the commonality that connects them all.

EC:  Could you also explore the works featured in NAP? Who are the people in your collages and what do they represent to you?

EA: Both "the Cost of Oil", and "Inflation" are commentary on war and economy in relationship to our value of human life and the sacrifice that our American lifestyle demands. In 2007, I came across an article published by the New York Times titled "Faces of the Dead." This featured portraits of U.S. casualties of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The ongoing grid of faces had a haunting effect on me. Seven years later I came across the newspaper clipping again, and with our troops still at war, I wanted to make a statement about the overwhelming realities about these wars and the impact of the history of war itself.

Emily L. R. Adams | Integral Heirloom (Installation), 5x18', Digital print, silver platter, 2014.

Emily L. R. Adams | Integral Heirloom (detail), 4x9", Digital print, silver platter, 2014.

EC: How do those works differ from other series you are working on?

EA: When I step back and look at my work cohesively, this series stands out because it focuses on a subject that is very sensitive and personal to a lot of people beyond my own immediate connection. A common thread throughout all my work, is that each work is an effort to express the need and want of freedom in life.

Another example is a series in which I appropriated vintage images of pin-up/peep-show women onto antique silver platters. The message again, being one of sacrifice and power. The overarching questions that I want to bring to light is the idea of defining freedom, is it something we can truly achieve. If so, what has to change for it to become a reality? Maybe it only exists in death? It is a powerful idea and something that we believe in, fight for, yearn for, and even die for. In this way I put myself in a similar position as the viewer by challenging and confronting myself with these important questions.

Emily L. R. Adams | I See Myself In You (detail), Cotton, 25x9'; mirror, 3x3', Screen-print, cotton, graphite, mud-wash, etched mirror, shou-sugi-ban, 2015.

Emily L. R. Adams | I See Myself In You (Installation View), Cotton, 25x9'; Mirror, 3x3', Screen-print, cotton, graphite, mud-wash, etched mirror, shou-sugi-ban, 2015.

EC: Do you ever take your own photos to incorporate in your prints and collages or are you more interested in incorporating existing ephemera and media into your work?

EA: I enjoy working with existing images because it is like stimulating a dialog with the visual world, often playing of the pre-existing syntax that we can all relate to. I have been taking my own photographs since being introduced to the darkroom at age 13. Portraiture is the most compelling subject matter to me and I have incorporated it in other series, including my most recent work, “I See Myself In You.” For this I photographed friends and acquaintances in full figure portraits that I then screen-printed onto scenery canvas. The eight people chosen for this piece all represent a lifestyle that I would describe as non-conformist, in other words free from societal demands. This is again, another exploration of freedom.


Emily L. R. Adams is a graduate student in the Design Studies program at UW-Madison's School of Human Ecology. She earned her BFA in fine art printmaking from the Columbus College of Art & Design in 2005. Over the past decade Emily has developed a technique of printmaking that defines her distinctive style of work. Creating unique patterns, composed of distinctively individual elements, patterns and texture emerge harmoniously side-by-side in one piece.         

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor.


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