At 26, Adam DeVarney is young enough that his childhood pastimes still hold sway over his imagination, and old enough that he’s beginning to launch a career. That makes him the perfect age for the two impulses to collude. But DeVarney didn’t think any of this would happen, and so fast.
“This” means exhibits and sales of his artwork every month since his debut in the South End Art Hop last fall; his brand-new selection as artist-in-residence at Burlington’s Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts; coverage — twice — in ArtMap Burlington in recent months; and, of course, the feature you’re reading right now. Next month he’ll have a solo show at The Daily Planet. Firehouse curator Chris Thompson says, “Adam will be making really important work in a couple of years, and he doesn’t even know it yet.”
What DeVarney does know is that getting laid off — from his post-college job on a production line at IBM — was “the best thing that ever happened to me.” The best thing, that is, in light of what’s happened since he decided to “give the art a chance.”
A native Vermonter, DeVarney graduated from Essex High School in 2002. Lanky and brown-haired, he has a gentle, laid-back manner that belies his passion for the risk-taking sport of skateboarding. And while his look hints at street style, DeVarney favors earth-toned clothing, a preference he suggests may result from his red/green color blindness. That condition didn’t stop him from earning a BFA from the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, though it may be responsible for the off-kilter and sometimes muted hues in his paintings. DeVarney says, “I usually can tell [a shade] using color theory. And, thank God, all my paints are labeled.”
DeVarney has been drawing since he was a kid, much like his father, Craig, who liked to sketch cartoons. The younger DeVarney was also “big into cartoons” on TV. “I watched them all, and it was a huge influence,” he says. “If I wasn’t playing with Legos, I was watching cartoons. If I wasn’t doing either of those things, I was drawing. I can draw just about any cartoon character — that was really popular in the middle-school yearbook,” he notes with a wry grin.
Vestiges of cartooning are evident in DeVarney’s acrylic and mixed-media collage works, which mix graphic elements such as numerals and typography into figurative, often fantastical compositions. The paintings also reveal his love of the line — and his skill with it. “The drawn line is the biggest focus,” he says. “I put as much of myself into it as I can.”
An example was recently spread out on a work table in his Firehouse studio: a line drawing — in black with a wash of blue — of a large gull. This was included in a collage composed of multiple White Castle logos and a murky, sepia-toned photograph of a pile of trash.
DeVarney says he’s influenced by the music he listens to as he works — a snatch of lyrics might end up in a collage — and he free associates to create arresting combinations of images. “Different objects I had floating in my head — it all came together in a kind of landfill,” he says of a fantasy landscape entitled “Chalk,” which was exhibited at the 2009 Art Hop. He compares his selection process to that of a DJ sampling bits from here and there. “I like the layers, the overlapping, the juxtapositions,” he explains.
While his work has been described by some, including Thompson, as having an urban aesthetic, DeVarney himself references childhood interests: “machines, gears, technical things.” These, and a large dose of whimsy, are manifest in a series of paintings featuring 18-wheelers flying — literally — down a highway.
Even in the spare works featuring a machine-gun turret resting on top of an outsized human hand against a white field, DeVarney insists there’s “no message intended … but I’m very much aware that people may get the military reference.” Recalling how he used his hand to walk toys across a table, he says, “The hands with turrets are almost like comic-book characters to me. The iconography is different depending on what you grew up with.”
A 2008 painting entitled “The Reflection” certainly invites speculation. Another fantasy setting, it features a sort of “ghost ship” suspended above a polluted-looking lake against an unnatural yellow sky. DeVarney agrees the scene looks postapocalyptic but gives it a positive spin: “As eerie and dismal as the landscape is, the boat is kind of hopeful,” he suggests.
The fourth floor of the Firehouse has a commanding view of Lake Champlain. But DeVarney isn’t wasting much time gazing out the windows. He’s thrilled to have such an expansive space to work in, and aims to finish a dozen pieces — at least two of them large-scale — before his residency ends on April 18. His work space at home, he says, is a fraction of this size.
“I never knew it could be like this,” says DeVarney of his recent opportunities. “I’m really blown away.”