New Takes: Adrienne Elise Tarver

By Jamee Crusan March 13, 2018

New Takes (formerly Fan Mail on Daily Serving) is a column that spotlights emerging artists from every region on this planet. Art Practical welcomes all artists to submit their work to be reviewed. Every year, a writer is nominated and selected from a pool of recent graduates of California College of the Arts to write for the New Takes column.

The Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist Adrienne Tarver’s seductive jungle landscapes blur the lines between looking and voyeurism, pulling viewers in and out at her command. In her latest work, Botanica Magica (2017), featured at Pelican Bomb Gallery X in New Orleans, Louisiana, Tarver explores the jungle landscape by using a rich color palette of ink on durable yupo watercolor paper. Viewing Tarver’s 8-feet-high, 34-feet-long painting is a full-body experience. The tropical trees tower over viewers, and the span of the painting, which reaches across three walls of the gallery, further envelopes the audience in the tropical paradise. Tarver transports viewers into a beautifully painted jungle full of green, blue, brown, and yellow hues. However, a closer look reveals the hidden curves of bodies—hips, thighs, and breasts—immersed in the foliage. Tarver provides viewers access to these hidden figures but only if they are willing to look long enough, hard enough, to see these abstract figures.

03a Tarver-Adrienne-01.jpg

Tarver told me that to create the Black and Brown female bodies for her “land of women,” she pulled inspiration from classic archetypal figures including nymphs, muses, and sirens, calling them “seductive, dangerous, and elusive.”1 Through her skillful blending of lush and vibrant inks, Tarver creates a visual conundrum for viewers, asking them to oscillate between two roles of looking: that of the onlooker and that of the voyeur.

Where is the line drawn between the two? Voyeurism is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as gaining sexual pleasure through looking,2 whereas simply looking speaks less to pleasure but still connotes a power dynamic. Tarver further implicates viewers by compelling them to interact with the highly sexualized Black and Brown bodies, always already exoticized, in a fertile, precarious, and alluring environment; the idea of the jungle, too, is loaded with connotations of conquest, primitivism, and colonial rule. These concepts of the exotic are simultaneously transferred between landscape and bodies.

Tarver posed the question to me, “At what point do we decide somebody deserves respect and to not give into our own curiosity but respect someone’s personal boundaries?” There is play within the visibility of the multicolored bodies that are shrouded in the landscape, rendering some figures invisible unless the watercolor image is carefully studied. This act of examining the bodies of Black and Brown women elicits the voyeuristic history of the colonial gaze, and as a viewer, I found myself suspended in this exacting tension Tarver ignites in her work.

When I looked at Botanica Magica, I noticed a meticulous thin white line that traced around bodies and leaves, a detail that confused my eyes in an already stimulating scene. Just as I started to think there was consistency in the placement of the white lines, I soon noticed that was not the case. I was led from tree to tree by the white lines, yet when I followed them, I couldn’t see the woman’s body directly in front of my face. It's here, in the spaces between lines and boundaries, where Tarver’s blurring—of sight, and of my role as viewer—occurred. Standing back, I observed how some bodies appeared to be engaged in private, intimate acts while appearing to be in ecstasy or even bathing in a river. I realized that the strong trunk of a tree was in fact a thigh, and what I first believed was a leaf transformed into an arm. Tarver blends and hides these eroticized bodies, thereby luring viewers deeper into the landscape, compelling them to keep looking. I continued staring into the jungle while allowing myself to be enticed by the danger of the siren’s song or a forbidden landscape.

Veil - projection and painting 72dpi 1024px.jpg

Tarver continually returns to the tropical jungle landscape and the power of the gaze in her work. In Veil (2014), she again creates an overwhelming environment that elicits sensorial confusion while actively engaging and confronting the viewer. Hanging from the ceiling, a large mesh screen covered in white acrylic caulking depicts a jungle scene. Measuring 8 feet high and 4 feet wide, the acrylic surface also serves as a site that receives the projected video footage of jungle foliage. Against the gallery’s dark atmosphere, the projected imagery of bright, vivid greens generates an immersive environment that produces visual disorientation. As an onlooker, I felt drawn into the seemingly haunted tropical landscape, and then felt surprised as I caught sight of a figure standing in the shadows. Eventually I realized the body was camouflaged into the physical acrylic painting; in the shadows, she blended in with the foliage around her—a figure almost invisible, since she was created by the white caulking. In Veil, viewers are trapped in-between looking at the projections of light, the overlapping jungle-scapes, and shadows. It’s hard to stay grounded between light and dark, and Tarver plays with this. She has created an environment in which two spaces converge into each other, and the woman’s body resides in both. I continually oscillated in between the two worlds, hovering in sustained uncertainty.

There is power in the gaze, and as many scholars—bell hooks, Edward Said, Kobena Mercer, and Frantz Fanon—argue, the gaze is already voyeuristic since it is rooted in a hegemonic perspective, more often than not specifically white and male. The jungle landscapes are continually exchanged with the Black and Brown women’s bodies, an act by Tarver that allows the cultural projections of the jungle’s exotic, dangerous, and wildly untamed nature to be associated with or projected onto the bodies. In this exchange, Tarver mediates exposure in her jungle-scapes while simultaneously, unabashedly implicating the colonizer’s gaze. Tarver commands and controls the way in which the viewer sees the bodies of the women, and even how they are accessed. The women are exposed with naked bodies, as seen in Botanica Magica, and with stark white light creating the shadowy figure as seen in Veil. Tarver gives the viewer very little information about the women she shows and also hides, which allows viewers to project any story or idea onto the figure. By controlling how the bodies are seen and recognized as the exposure of these women’s identities, Tarver creates an invitation for viewers to consider, wondrously or voyeuristically, who these women are, but she reminds us there are some things we don’t get to know.


Adrienne Elise Tarver is an artist living in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Exceedingly bright, charismatic, inventive, and engaging, speaking with Adrienne is like relaxing on your favorite leather couch with an old friend and a good glass of wine.  We suspect that everyone she meets feels this way.


“Everyone has a perspective… I think about the uniqueness of perspective and the inability to find a singular truth when recounting history, we all have unique ways of seeing things and experiencing the world informed by our lives, identity, and history. These are things I think about in my tropical works and the work that revolves around the story of [a fictional woman] Vera Otis... I connect memory to this [because] the memory of a place, object or material informs our perspective and changes the narrative we create.”

That’s a fraction of insights discussed during a casual conversation about history, mythology, colonial legacies and her collaboration with Minor History. From kid entrepreneur to imaginative artist, her work challenges the idea of materials, artforms and conventional executions.

“Before [graduate school] I had always had this separation [in my practice] between ‘fine art’ and ‘the craft part.’ I grew up sewing and there would always be fabrics at home and wood, and I had never considered them as being in the work.”

Now, Adrienne’s interdisciplinary art practice is deeply embedded in the materiality of the everyday object.  She realized the beauty and visual stimulation provided by childhood crafts, noting, for example, that she “sewed as a kid—made my own purses… I also had a friendship bracelet making business during summer camp. People would select their colors and I’d make the design and create the bracelet. Then in 5th grade, I started a pencil decorating business— in general, I always had a lot of arts and crafts around.”

Reconsidering her craft and art practice, Adrienne says that after grad school she was “fully [able to] accept the idea that anything can be a[n art] material.  I have no hierarchy in my brain about it.”


Yet it was her training in fine art at Boston University and School of the Art Institute of Chicago that is the foundation of her mature work. This blossomed into a hybrid of materials and inventive techniques that break the mold of traditional canvas and paint for a three dimensional, painterly experience. She makes use of her childhood training in craft, her endless curiosity, and her intuitive sense of architectural space in her most recent work: large-scale installations of densely painted plants.

Adrienne’s recent installation at Victori + Mo gallery reinterpreted traditional trompe l’eoil through materiality. It used wire mesh as a support structure for thickly painted tropical and domestic plant images that interrupt our normal experience of the reality in her installations, forcing viewers to physically engage by ducking, weaving, and climbing over the pieces as if wading through the dense fauna of a jungle environment. Yet these plants appear ethereal. The painted vines and leaves hover, magically unsupported.  “When we see a window we tend to omit the screen.  It’s easy to ignore what’s actually in front of you.”  Adrienne explained that the perception “of delicacy overlooks a very strong material.

She employs this same playful approach in the design of her leaf clutch for Minor History. The clutch, directly inspired from components of her work in the Victori + Mo Show, appears delicate and ephemeral but it is made out of durable, reliably crafted material that only improves in quality over time.

“I loved the idea of making a Minor History bag so much because these bags will grow into your perspective with you. They become unique to you, to your experiences. They develop into souvenirs of moments and migrations and life.”


Material objects, according to Adrienne, hold onto the memory of those people that held onto them.  Material takes the impression of the time and the people that happen around it.  This can be painful and pleasurable simultaneously; the past is present in our senses. In touching, looking, living with our objects, we both revive history and create it.

Her line of Minor History bags display the playful urgency with which she approaches her subject: the camouflaged wilderness in the domestic. Gentile, feral, and ultimately, beautiful.


Adrienne is currently a resident at the Lower East Side Printshop and works as Director of the Art & Design department and of the HSA Gallery at the Harlem School for the Arts (HSA). “Every teacher has a favorite age,” Adrienne admitted, “mine is late middle school to early college. The teen years. I like that age because students are intelligent, they’re excited, and they are still very open to ideas, but they’ve developed the skills to build on things. They surpass you in so many ways, which is exciting to me. I want to be impressed by my students, and I am, constantly.”

You can find Adrienne Tarver's artwork in her show at Wave Hill, on view this spring. Follow her on Instagram for more updates @Adrienne__elise.


14 Emerging Women Artists to Watch in 2017 - Art Net News

Who runs the world?

Sarah Cascone, December 21, 2016

Adrienne Elise Tarver. Courtesy of Adrienne Elise Tarver.

Adrienne Elise Tarver. Courtesy of Adrienne Elise Tarver.

14. Adrienne Elise Tarver 
The subject of the just-closed solo show, “Stories of Shadows,” at Brooklyn’s Victori + Mo, Adrienne Elise Tarver has created a fascinating series of work, all stemming from a found photograph of a black woman in glasses. Tarver has invented an entire life and persona for her unknown muse, who she has christened “Vera Otis,” exploring issues of voyeurism through video “vignettes” and dioramas. In an era where the concept of privacy is fading fast, Tarver’s work calls into question the divide between appearances and reality.

“it doesn’t matter who she is,” Tarver told Art Zealous of Otis. “With us both being black women, she has served as a vessel or surrogate for me to ask larger questions or tell stories that relate to me and my experiences or the experiences of women in my life.”

Voyeurism & Stories of Shadows with Artist Adrienne Elise Tarver - Art Zealous

December 15, 2016 by Kristina Adduci

Photo credit:  John Ma

Photo credit: John Ma

If you do one thing before you leave town for the holidays, it should be to go check out Adrienne Elise Tarver’s newest show, Stories of Shadows at Victori + Mo. With this exhibition, Adrienne Elise Tarver expands upon the narrative of Vera Otis, a character based off of a black and white portrait photo she found of a woman in a thrift store. Tarver named her character Vera derived from the Latin word veritas for truth as a reminder that nothing in presented narrative is true.

We caught up with Tarver to discuss her background, influences and voyeurism.

Art Zealous: Tell us about your background and how you came to be an artist?
Adrienne Elise Tarver: I grew up involved in all of the arts— through my teens I danced, played the flute, and made visual art—I was also very crafty, I sewed and built things. In high school, I won an award to attend a summer program at the Art Institute of Chicago which solidified my love of making art and my drive to become an artist. I didn’t really know it was possible or what it entailed until then. From there I received my BFA at Boston University, then after a couple of years went back to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for my MFA.

AZ: Coffee or tea?
AET: I’m a heavy green tea drinker and love all things green tea flavored. I love both coffee and tea but can’t handle the caffeine in coffee though I still have coffee ice cream and very occasionally sneak a decaf mocha.

AZ: Biggest influence in your life?
AET: My older brother was and still is a huge influence in my life. He passed away when I was in high school and many of the decisions I’ve made since then, especially in regards to pursuing art, come back to him. All of the cliches about realizing how precious life is, living life to the fullest, and doing what you love really resonate with me because of losing him.

Adrienne Elise Tarver,  Eavesdropping 1 , 2016 digital photograph of built miniature sizes are variable Courtesy of the artist and Victori + Mo

Adrienne Elise Tarver, Eavesdropping 1, 2016 digital photograph of built miniature sizes are variable Courtesy of the artist and Victori + Mo

AZ: What object have you held onto forever that you can’t bring yourself to get rid of?

AET: I’m very sentimental and like to keep mementos, so there are many. One of the most significant is a watch my brother gave me—it stopped working years ago despite attempts to get it fixed, yet I still have it.

AZ: Do you listen to music while you work? What’s on your playlist right now?

AET: I mostly listen to podcasts while making art (This American Life, RadioLab, 2 Dope Queens, Savage Lovecast, Snap Judgement, The Moth) and music while I run (either the Beyonce or Azalea Banks Pandora stations have good running tempos for me).

Adrienne Elise Tarver,  Eavesdropping 5,  2016 digital photograph of built miniature sizes are variable Courtesy of the artist and Victori + Mo

Adrienne Elise Tarver, Eavesdropping 5, 2016 digital photograph of built miniature sizes are variable Courtesy of the artist and Victori + Mo

AZ: How would you define voyeurism and what role does that term play your work?

AET: I would define voyeurism as a form of intrusion—it starts with looking in without your presence being known, but can become a lot more. To be a voyeur is a position of privilege and power, which is why I think I find it so interesting. Also, the idea that being a voyeur does not mean that you are immune to being viewed. Looking in on someone else makes you aware of your own vulnerability. It’s this fluid power dynamic that is unsettling and uncomfortable. Everyone has a moral and physical boundary—a point where they decide they are in fact intruding and usually look or walk away. This point varies for everyone. I like to pull at the desire to be a voyeur to see how far the audience will go.

AZ: Is there an artistic medium you’ve never tried before that you want to learn to use?
AET: I’ve been thinking lately about welding and metal casting—more relating to my hanging foliage paintings—I’m thinking through ideas of durability in public spaces.

AZ: What do you want viewers to take away from your upcoming show Stories of Shadows?What is the significance of jungle imagery in your work?

AET: I want viewers to feel the intimacy of the space and question their right to look into this woman’s life. I look at voyeurism existing on a spectrum of intrusion—with looking into your neighbors window being one of the lesser transgressions. The tropical foliage exists on the other side of this spectrum, tapping into a more imperialistic form of voyeurism rooted in an assumption that what or who is within and beyond the dense tropical flora is ‘undiscovered’ and open to being claimed and consumed. I think a lot about artists like Henri Rousseau or Paul Gauguin who participated in fetishizing those landscapes and their inhabitants. I’m also fully aware of how I am susceptible I am to being seduced by the tropics—it’s more about raising questions than inducing guilt for this desire.

Adrienne Elise Tarver,  Eavesdropping 8 , 2016 digital photograph of built miniature sizes are variable Courtesy of the artist and Victori + Mo

Adrienne Elise Tarver, Eavesdropping 8, 2016 digital photograph of built miniature sizes are variable Courtesy of the artist and Victori + Mo

AZ: Who is Vera Otis and what do you have in common with her? Did you consider other names for Vera?
AET: Vera Otis is a character created from an image of a woman in an old photograph. In reality, it doesn’t matter who she is, just that I don’t and will never know her real story. With us both being black women, she has served as a vessel or surrogate for me to ask larger questions or tell stories that relate to me and my experiences or the experiences of women in my life. Although I didn’t name her for a while, there was really only one name that felt appropriate—Vera means true in Latin or real in Italian. I was always playing with what is true or real—something the audience (or I) can never accurately assess as voyeurs. The power of the voyeur I spoke of before, is always based on fiction.

AZ: Favorite Brooklyn spot to grab a bite after a long day in the studio?
AET: My studio is two blocks from Four and Twenty Blackbirds which has a great Mint Green Tea Latte and great scones and biscuits. Also pie and other treats.

AZ: Dream location to show your work? 
AET: I fell in love with art at the Art Institute of Chicago. It would fulfill all of my childhood dreams to show there.

AZ: What’s next for you?
AET: I have a lot of ideas for Vera Otis. In the current work, she’s moving out of the house we’re looking into in “Eavesdropping.” I want to explore where she came from and where she is going next. I don’t have answers for that yet, but I have ideas for more work exploring these questions. In February, I’m excited to create a physically engaging installation of the tropical work at Victori+Mo.

Stories of Shadows is on view at Victori + Mo, 56 Bogart Street, Brooklyn, NY

December 8-December 18, 2016

The Numinous Artwork of Adrienne Elise Tarver - Peripheral Vision Arts

Wednesday 01.11.17

Peripheral Vision, no. 2, 2016

by Lisa Volpe

Adrienne Elise Tarver,  Eavesdropping

Adrienne Elise Tarver, Eavesdropping

Numen is the best word. Though this term—drawn from Roman paganism—is far removed from our contemporary context, it remains the best description of the method by which artist Adrienne Elise Tarver’s project succeeds. A numen is a spirit, especially one believed to inhabit a particular object. Though the word might seem foreign or antiquated, the concept is familiar, even in our digital age. We all have a tendency to collect numinous objects: the tassel from your graduation cap, a pressed flower from a romantic date, or a scruffy teddy bear that is emblematic of childhood. Numinous objects “concretize [the] abstract.”[1] With these objects, concepts such as being, time, and/or memory are embodied in the tangible. This connection is not inherent; instead it is created and can die away. A numinous object exists as long as a single person remembers the connection between the object and the significant person, place, or event it references. In the same way, a numen loses its power when all those who remember the association are lost.[2]

Numinous objects reveal more than memories, they speak to psychological needs. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that the history of an object changes how we experience it. Bloom emphasizes that our pleasure with an object increases with knowledge of its history.[3] In short, we desire objects with history. In her work, Tarver builds upon this connection between objects, history, and desire in order to investigate issues of transgression and voyeurism. In her multi-media installation, Eavesdropping, Tarver constructs and presents a host of numinous objects, making concrete the abstract concepts of knowledge and desire.

Tarver’s foundational numinous object was found at a thrift store.  Amid the second-hand items, her artist’s eye focused on a photograph. In the image, a young, black woman wearing glasses sits on a chair and stares directly back at the camera. The numinous connection between the sitter and her life had been severed, the memories lost. Her name and history is unknown. Instead, the photograph had become just another object in the thrift store. That photo with its simple composition nonetheless held a particular attraction for the artist. She desired its history. To Tarver, the way in which the woman was sitting, her clothing, and her direct, confident gaze out of the image struck her immediately. This yellowing photograph with its curved edges and mysterious sitter would become the touchstone for the work Eavesdropping.

To fully understand Tarver’s artistic project in Eavesdropping, it is important to compare it to an earlier body of work. In her series Home, Tarver recreated her childhood home in Georgia in the form of a small-scale model. “It’s the first home that I remember,” recalls the artist, who moved from New Jersey, to Georgia, and onto the Chicago suburbs all before the age of 10. “It’s a specific part of my life,” she notes,  “yet, I couldn’t finish the model because I didn’t have the full memory.”[4] When she had taken the model to the limits of her memory, Tarver turned to photography, capturing it in a series of images.

Though Tarver would abandon personal narratives in her subsequent work, the warmly lit images in Home nevertheless represent the artist’s core concerns. Ideas of memory and desire are articulated in an object: a numen in the shape of a miniature model of her home. The specific connection between the space of the home and art is advanced in the work of Gaston Bachelard. Indeed, Tarver notes that Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space was a reference point for the work.[5] Bachelard’s phenomenological interrogation explores the meaning of space from the standpoint of art and poetry. The house, for Bachelard, is a metaphorical source of poetic images, the protector of our intimate lives. Notably, the theorist insists that the house is not an object that can be satisfactorily described, because much of its potency lies in its intimate meaning. In essence, what Bachelard describes is a home’s numinous quality. The house is more than its structure. It is an object or space that comes to represent our inner lives and invokes our memories.

Yet with the idea of space comes the paired notions of in/out; interior/exterior; within/without. Building on the work of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Bachelard noted that “inside” and “outside” are in dynamic continuity, rather than geometrical opposition. Through poetry and art, interior lives (thoughts and feelings) can be turned inside out and given physical form (the home), their inner being revealed to the eye of the beholder.

Tarver’s series Home is an artistic expression of interior and exterior relationship. This particular home is, as Tarver noted, the last space “we entered as a family, and left as a family.” The artist’s brother passed away after the family moved from the Georgia home to the Chicago area. “The idea of absence and the impossibility to return to a place and a former version of life fueled a lot of that project,” she notes.[6]

Tarver’s personal desires to return and remember are represented by the home—a private interior given spatial dimension. This connection is reflected in the compositions themselves. Each of the images in the series clearly depicts windows, doors, and in one case, a fireplace. These physical passages between interior and exterior underscore the idea that the numinous space of the home unites these realms.

Though unwritten and unspoken, there is a common belief that the role of the artist is to open their lives to us. The viewer has come to expect such easy access. When it comes to artists, the barrier between interior and exterior is meant to be unguarded. Who can think of Jackson Pollack’s work without also recalling his battles with addiction? Why do we remember Vincent van Gogh’s severed ear along with his Sunflowers? According to Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk:

In the Western world we often hold the deeply ingrained belief that whatever the fruits of our labour, they will bear the traces of our unique individuality and this belief implies that the way to gain understanding of the meaning of a work of art is to relate it to an artist’s personality or experience.[7]

Just as there is a desire to know, there is a history of artists contesting this desire.

In spatial terms, what Bachelard and Rilke desired in art can be described as a form of trespassing. Bruce Nauman’s video installation, Mapping the Studio plays on this idea. The work is a full 5-hours and 45-minutes. Seven projections each show Nauman’s studio from different angles, each shot at night with a cheap infrared camera. The sound is mere ambient noise – wind, the mechanical whirl of an air-conditioner, and the occasional train-whistle. Nauman’s work fulfills our artistic, voyeuristic desires. We are given unfettered access to the artist’s studio, a representation of the inner creative world of the artist expressed in an exterior space. Yet, the gray-green images, nighttime setting, and style of the work recall surveillance cameras or clandestine activity. Mapping the Studio urges the viewer to consider his or her own desire to merge the interior and exterior worlds of the artist as a type of voyeurism.

When Tarver purchased the photograph of the unknown woman at the thrift store, she embraced a tabula rasa. Working both with and against the human desire to perceive art as numinous, Tarver began to construct a home and possessions for her anonymous muse, who she named Vera Otis.

My recent work explores the life of a woman from a found black and white photograph. Young, black, female, wearing glasses and facing the camera, she felt both familiar and distant at the same time. Enticed by her anonymity, I’ve been creating the narrative of her life in paintings and documented her home and possessions, built as miniatures, through photography and video.[8]

Together, these photos and videos became the installation, Eavesdropping. Though her previous series Home conforms to the common desire and ingrained belief that a work of art reflects its maker, in the installation, Tarver forces the viewer to question this desire and warns of its extremes.

When the viewer enters the dark gallery in which Eavesdropping is on view, they are immediately confronted with a video projection on the left. The projection merges 8 artist-created vignettes, each lasting 30 seconds to 1 minute.  The clips show a well-made house model. At times the camera pans slowly over the exterior of the house. Other times, it is stationary and the view is partially blocked by the leaves of outdoor palms or hidden by the darkness of night. We cannot control the limited views we are getting. Similarly, we cannot completely follow the accompanying audio track - a woman’s quiet voice, engaged in what sounds like a one-sided telephone conversation. Try as we might to perform the role of the eavesdropper and voyeur, the house and the conversation remain a mystery.

Adrienne Elise Tarver,  Estate Sale of Ms. Vera Otis, Lot 4, Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman

Adrienne Elise Tarver, Estate Sale of Ms. Vera Otis, Lot 4, Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman

Nearby in the gallery, a collection of 12 photographs highlight objects from the house: a desk set, a bronze statue, a dresser and wigs. On a bench nearby, a booklet, “Estate Sale of Ms. Vera Otis,” listed each of these items as if they were headed for an auction:

Lot 1

Standing Nude Sculpture, Bronze, Spain

Condition: Minimal wear, increased patina with age

Provenance: Acquired from anonymous collector

In our minds, we strive to unite these disparate objects into a collective definition of their owner. We aim to read them as numinous objects. Yet, this understanding is also just out of reach. Moving past these photos, the viewer encounters several light boxes. Unlike the video, these brightly lit images of the house model offer the viewer the opportunity for a prolonged look of the rooms and objects within them. The room itself is wallpapered with large, green foliage.

The relationship between exterior and interior is writ large in Eavesdropping. Notably, the work consistently places the viewer “outside.” Try as we might, we cannot go into the house or examine it the way we’d like in the video. We cannot understand the telephone conversation. The 12 individual objects do not add up to a full understanding of their owner. Even the painted wallpaper recalls “live fencing,” — plants used to create a home barrier — its repetition emphasizing our placement outside of this imagined home.  

Tarver does not attempt to pass off the models she created as real objects or the plants as live examples. Their status as mere facsimile is never in question. Similarly, in her descriptions, Tarver never attempts to hide the work’s fictional ties to the anonymous photo. By emphasizing an exterior position and denying the viewer any sort of reality, Tarver has severed the tie between interior life and physical form. The numinous objects — home, statue, wigs — do not reference any real history. Instead they reify the abstract concepts of knowledge and desire. The viewer is denied the interior/exterior connection that Bachelard and Rilke coveted, forcing them to confront their own desire for such continuity. 

The home and objects are not the focus of the installation, nor is the woman in the photograph that inspired the photos and video. Much like Nauman’s Mapping the Studio, Tarver places her viewer at the center of the work of art. Layout, title, text and especially media emphasize this focus. While the installation swirls around the visitor, the text of the booklet, “The Estate Sale of Vera Otis,” specifically calls out the viewer, implicating them in the work:

Lot 7

Mission Style Desk Set

Chair with cushion, Desk with six drawers

Condition: Some scratches desk surface

Provenance: Owner inherited from your grandmother

Similarly, the strict use of photographic imagery — both film and photo — emphasizes a voyeuristic position. Photography, after all, is the gaze given physical form. It reifies the dialectical relationship between observer and observed and calls into question the legitimacy of looking.[9]

In her description of the work, Tarver notes: 

The urge to explore, whether looking into the neighbor’s window or a colonizer conquering ‘undiscovered’ territory, implies a sense of prerogative of the viewer and disregard for the privacy of the other…I’m interested in the space where looking becomes a transgression and what is seen reveals more about the viewer, than the viewed.[10]

Similarly, art critic and curator Michael Rush, states, “It is a short leap from looking (fixing one’s gaze upon another) to voyeurism (taking delight in extended gazing) to spying (surreptitiously studying the actions of another).”[11] This, in fact, is the short distance Eavesdropping transports the viewer. Offering both a look (in the video), a voyeuristic view (the estate photos and light boxes), and a chance to spy (the installation as a whole), Tarver moves her viewer along, all the while questioning their desire.

Nothing is as it first seems in the art of Adrienne Elise Tarver. Her installation, Eavesdropping, is rich with dualities and paradoxes. The work of art conveys a strong sense of place and presence, yet it leaves these two elements undefined. Trading on our deep human desire to connect objects such as the home or a work of art, to the owner or maker, Tarver questions our right to know. The photos and video that make up Eavesdropping have a particular power that transcends their subject — a model house — and their physical boundaries. The best word for this, perhaps, is numen.

Dr. Lisa Volpe earned a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is currently serving as the Associate Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Previously she has held positions at such venerable institutions as the Wichita Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Read essays by Lisa Volpe.

Peripheral Vision Arts is quickly establishing itself as one of the most competitive and prestigious publication venues for American emerging and mid-career visual artists. An independent, artist-run digital journal, Peripheral Vision pairs creators with professional critics for the publication of academically rigorous essays, interviews, artist profile pages, and curated exhibitions. Our merit-based Publication Fellowships are open to creators working in all visual art genres, at all career stages from BFA students to tenured art faculty and independent artists with 20+ years of experience. Artists seeking critical recognition or considering themselves marginalized by geography, socio-economic status, media specialty, immigrant status, ethnicity, racial or gender identity are especially encouraged to apply. 


Posted on May 13, 2016 by CUE

by James Powers

Installation Shot:  Eavesdropping  at BRIC Arts Media, 2016.  Photo Credit: Jason Wyche

Installation Shot: Eavesdropping at BRIC Arts Media, 2016.  Photo Credit: Jason Wyche

Adrienne Tarver is an artist and educator working in New York. Her work was recently the subject of a solo show titled “Eavesdropping” at BRIC Arts Media, March 1 – 27, 2016. In this interview, she sat down with James Powers. James Powers is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. He runs the Fastnet Project in Red Hook, a shipping container turned gallery, studio, and gathering space.

James Powers: You have picked the life of a young, black female that you came upon at a thrift store. Do you think about yourself in recreating the environs of her life

Adrienne Tarver: Yes, in some ways she’s an alter ego, or surrogate, I can use to live out alternative realities or possibilities of my life; not directly, but emotionally. Thinking about her hopes, dreams, aspirations and whether she was able to fulfill them–does she still have time/energy to fulfill them? What factors contributed to her successes and failures–relationships, family, societal pressures and expectations? Where is she in her life at that moment in that photograph?

The hope is to evoke some sort of emotional response from the viewer, and for that to work I feel it has to work with me first. As the creator, I’m just as much a voyeur into her life as the audience, so I’ve tried to access the things that would make me sad or uncomfortable or curious were I to stumble upon random details of someone else’s life.

JP: Do you have nostalgia for the suburbs?

AT: I do have nostalgia for the suburbs, but I wonder how much of it is rooted in the idea that I have not yet and may not live the suburban life again. That seems too final to say aloud, but it’s true–or at least in the way it has been accepted in past generations as the traditional way to you grow up–move to the suburbs, have a family, live a life that looks very different from your younger self.

It’s interesting to think about that decision to place her house in the suburbs, because I don’t think I thought about it much when I started to build it. I’ve lived in cities, in apartments, for my entire adult life, so living in houses with yards, for me, is very much rooted in my childhood and adolescence.

JP: Our idea of the suburbs, (as we dogmatically live in chicken coops in Brooklyn), is constrained by antiquated and problematic stereotypes. As we get priced out of the city, I think we are going to have to revisit and redesign this predicament.

AT: Thinking about owning a freestanding house, especially after living in expensive cities for so long, feels so far removed from my version of adulthood that to think of her as my alter ego, owning a house definitely feels like an alternate reality–another element to distinguish her and her life from myself. What I thought about more than the idea of the suburbs was the question that arises of who can own their own house–who is she and how can she have this house? Does she own it? Whose house is it? What assumptions do viewers come to the work with directly related to the size, shape, and apparent location of the house?

JP:   There is a curious human presence in your exhibit. There is a trajectory that could go in two directions – towards the harmless and amicable, or into a cauldron of violence and fear.

AT: There is a bit of the nightmarish intention as well. I was thinking about Hitchcock and film noir – so much of the nightmare comes from the darkness, what we can’t see, what we don’t know. The suburban houses are these private havens. As opposed to apartments where walls are shared and building entrances are communal, suburban houses have multiple levels of trespassing (peering through bushes, walking on someone’s yard, crossing a fence, breaking into the house) and each level brings with it a heightened sense of fear and invasion.

JP: In “Eavesdropping”, the birds chirping add to the tension…

AT: Yeah, that’s another cue from film where we learn to anticipate bad events. Any sign that things are too normal, or so quiet that you can hear the birds or crickets is an indication that something bad can or will happen. The videos also have subtle one-sided phone conversations happening from within the house–I don’t think anyone can hear exactly what’s being said other than me, since I already know. But it was important that you are aware of the ambient sounds and hopefully strain to hear what else is happening–another form of intrusion.

JP: Works like Veil seem like a departure, with the tropical vines and palm trees, but it may also be allegorical. Is it occurring in the same time-frame as “Eavesdropping”?

AT: I think Veil exists independent of a specific time-frame. I would definitely say it’s more allegorical. Walking around it, viewers become shadows in the piece, and in that way it’s always changing and the time frame can only be the present moment. Eavesdropping starts to point to time periods, you can narrow it a bit, but it’s never defined in order to keep it ambiguous. They both speak to barriers. The audience is asked to intrude, break some type of barrier, but are still not given all the information, just shadows.

JP: Are you telling a story here (“Eavesdropping” and/or Veil)?

AT: There is definitely a story in “Eavesdropping”, but I’ve presented it as non-linear, which is also how I’ve created it. There are only pieces and the pieces aren’t given a specific order, so there could be many different versions. The only constant in the story is the place of the viewer as voyeur.

JP: What is your next project? Will it be a continuation of this work?

AT: I’m still interested in this woman and building on her story. I’m thinking of delving into her past a bit more. Where did she live before this house? What about her parents? I’m not bored of her yet, and think there are a lot of different avenues I can explore through her. is a new online forum for arts and cultural dialogue developed by CUE Art Foundation in collaboration with AICA USA. Populated by the writing, opinions and musings of both CUE’s Young Art Critic Mentoring Program Alumni and other emerging writers from around the United States, serves as a platform to present to readers art and culture that may not be covered by mainstream media. This site continues the long-lasting relationship CUE maintains with fantastic emerging writers, and gives them the opportunity to highlight emerging and under-recognized artists across the globe.