If you follow the narrow, twisting halls of the big orange Studio Arts Complex at 2400 Kettner Boulevard all the way back to studio No. 112, you'll find a hyper-focused David Adey surrounded by his sculptures at various points of progress.
"It's a pretty ambitious body of work I've set out to do," Adey admits, eyeing the work piling up around him.
A stack of empty containers, like ice-cream cartons and a KFC bucket, are piled high on one table -- the beginnings of a tower installation that starts as a communion cup and will be built up with found concentric cups that fit inside one another and will eventually be topped off with something as big as one of the large trash cans he has stacked in the back of his studio.
"I like this idea of filling the cup with a bigger cup and continually filling that cup with a bigger cup," he says. "It's kind of like this longing for more, like you're always dissatisfied."
On another table sits a clump of rubber that looks like peeled-off skin -- a "failed experiment" that resulted from Adey wondering what it would look like if he covered himself in rubber and peeled it off in one, long spiraling piece like some talented people are able to peel an orange or clementine. He successfully peeled the rubber from one of his hands, the gangling, somewhat creepy-looking result of which is pinned to a foam board tucked away in a corner.
On one wall, two large mounted foam boards boast the excruciatingly precise cutout-and-pinned-back-together collaged skin sculptures Adey's best known for, and, on another wall, two giant pieces of paper stretching up to the ceiling are covered in an organic-shaped-yet-technical-looking print that looks like some kind of triangulated map. He describes the large works as a Buckminster Fuller-inspired self-portrait that started as a 3-D scan of himself and says he wants to keep the details vague so people will come out to see the end result.
"It's a 75,000-piece puzzle is what it is," Adey offers up.
Just above his computer, which is perhaps the most important tool in crafting his work these days, is a row of deep-space photos used as the inspiration for a series of smaller collage sculptures, which clearly resemble the star clusters that inspire them.
"I've been reading a lot about astrophysics," Adey says. "I'm totally geeking out on it."
Adey, typically an arts professor at Point Loma Nazarene University by day, is currently living the dream, working full-time in his studio on a yearlong sabbatical that will culminate with a big solo show at Scott White Contemporary Art in January 2014. Adey is the type of artist whose complex ideas and concepts are often too time-consuming or expensive for him to actually bring to life. The support from Scott White, who's treating Adey as an artist-in-residence of sorts, coupled with the freedom of the sabbatical, is allowing him to go bigger and more complex than he's ever gone before. And for Adey, whose work can often be recognized by the obvious tedium that goes into it, it means he's got a lot more focusing and studio time ahead.
"There are about 650 limbs in this," Adey says, nodding toward a series of three he's calling "Gravitational Radius."
Standing back and taking in the work as a whole, the finished piece looks like a beautifully designed dandelion, but move in close and you see what Adey means. Tiny arms, legs, hands, shoulders, fingers and toes cut from fashion and celebrity photos found via Google image search are each separately pinned to a foam board in an intricate pattern Adey painstakingly pieced together digitally. The colors of the limbs --vivid toward the center and fade out at the edge -- have not been manipulated, Adey points out, which means he spent hours just looking for the right hues. Plus, the artist requires himself to use natural boundaries found in an image. In other words, he can't just cut an image anywhere he wants to make the shape fit. Instead, he finds an isolated chunk of skin and, where things like clothing, a ring or even a fingernail interrupt the natural flow, he follows the line and makes a cut mark. It's a choice that makes the task infinitely more difficult but decidedly more interesting.
"Tediousness, I think that's what makes the work beyond the aesthetic," says gallery owner Scott White. "On the surface, you see something unique and beautiful and something that's never been seen before. But once you scratch the surface a bit and find out where it all started and what took place, the labor and research that went into it -- I mean, he puts himself through such a rigorous process."
Indeed, Adey doesn't seem to make things easy on himself. He admits that it's often the constraints and boundaries he sets for himself during the conceptualizing phase that inform his work. And whether he's pushing drywall screws into a football and using a horse respirator to bring it to life or designing a dozen synchronized timers that count down from 1 trillion seconds to zero, he uses the limitations of his concept -- the constraint of a trillion seconds for example -- and lets the aesthetic naturally evolve.
"For me as an artist, it's a matter of developing or choosing your own constraints. Finding them and embracing them as a tool to make the work," Adey says. "Without constraints, you don't have anything. That's the whole design process -- working within constraints."
Another commonality between the artist's varied mediums is the theme of mortality and resurrection. One can't help but think of Jesus Christ crucified to the cross when eyeballing one of his pinned pieces.
"Destroying things and then building them back up again, those are some of the threads that go through all the work" Adey says, sitting down at his computer and pulling up the current pin piece he's working on. He opens up a digital layout featuring dozens of tiny cutout red, pink and purplish lips twisted together to resemble a spiral galaxy "It's interesting when you take something like lips covered in lipstick -- really bright and colorful, really sexy and sultry -- and then when you cut them out and isolate them, they look like slugs. They transform into something kind of creepy. I like that transformation."
Adey has been taking things apart and putting them back together again since grad school. When he eventually headed to Cranbrook Academy of Art to get his Master of Fine Arts degree, he was fed up with his career in the commercial graphic design world where he spent years doing inane tasks like touching up lips for ads very similar to the ones he's now cutting out and reassembling as art. One of his grad-school pieces, a reassembled lamb composed of ground-lamb meat stitched back together, helped set the groundwork for much of the work that's followed.
Over the years, though, Adey has gone from a Doctor Frankenstein to more of a backyard physicist or engineer whose pieces continue to get sleeker, more technologically interesting and refined. His pinned pieces, for example, used to feature skin cutouts from kitschy craft punches (picture the crafting tools that cut paper in the shapes of things like stars, bugs and hearts). Now, the skin is sliced with a laser cutter, which gives the already impeccable pieces an even cleaner finish.
And for his elusive self-portrait project, Adey built himself a 3D scanner by hacking an Xbox Kinect. To manipulate the image, he had to quickly teach himself some pretty complicated software like Rhino and MeshLab. All it takes is the time and means to learn it, Adey says, which is a luxury he finally has now that he's on sabbatical with the support of a gallery behind him.
"David drives himself crazy by adding all these challenges to his process," says White. "But at the end of the day, he's rewarded by what he's learned and gained and, ultimately, we are the beneficiaries. He's not afraid of any medium or any technology to achieve the end, which is the ability to express himself in an intellectually, personally and visually dynamic way."