Adrian Franks Suspicious Prisms + FEARLESS

Words by Lynn Pitts

  "50 Shots, Sean Bell"

"50 Shots, Sean Bell"

The journey to painter and digital artist Adrian Franks’ first solo show, Suspicious Prisms + FEARLESS, started in 2011 with a simple request from his wife. She wanted a portrait, a silhouette. As he worked on the painting he considered his wife, Nicole, and her accomplishments. She had propelled herself from a small town in Georgia, put herself through college and followed her dreams to New York City, where she had a burgeoning career as a food culturist, radio host and cookbook author. In his mind, that made her fearless. 

That was the spark. The Brooklyn-based Franks began to recruit everyone he encountered who was boldly, fearlessly pursuing their dreams. Those first sittings (Franks photographs his subjects first) led to bold, graphic, dynamic portraits done in mixed media on canvas and mason board as well as digital illustration. 

Pleased with the initial work, Franks started applying the FEARLESS filter everywhere he looked and his eye turned to history. Franks is a son of the south (Atlanta), and the American human and civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties occupied no small space in his consciousness. He began looking for images of civil and human rights advocates and found that most of the photos of people who’d fought against injustice were mug shots. Ironically, the mug shots provided the perfect profiles for his silhouette portraits.

In addition to Civil Rights freedom riders and members of SNCC, Franks portrait series included historical figures like Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, John F. Kennedy and Shirley Chisolm. 

“When I started the FEARLESS series, my main goal was to highlight people who embodied what it means to be brave, bold and strong. A true hero. A champion for all people. Whether they were sacrificing for what’s right or dream chasing, I wanted the series to showcase what made these individuals truly vivid,” says Franks.

But FEARLESS wasn’t static. The violence that Franks was observing in both history and popular culture began to seep into the work. He’d done pieces that featured Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, a pair of historical figures who’d met a violent end.  Later, he’d done portraits of murdered hip hop stars Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, noting that both also met their end at the end of a gun. “The violence of the past was still with us,” Franks says. 

Weekly, the news of more killings seeped in: violence on the streets of Chicago and New Orleans, the shootings of Sean Bell, Jonathan Ferrell, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin. “Everything from Sean Bell being fired upon fifty times, Troy Davis’ execution, the Trayvon Martin shooting, urban gun fire, inner city shootings and the privatization of prisons across the nations––it was all painting a picture that black males, by default, are suspects,” Franks recalls.

A shooting range target graphic made its way into the FEARLESS portrait series. “We could all be targets,” he says. “Being fearless and just trying to live your life can make you a target.”

Almost immediately after the not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, a series of colorful dots made their way into Frank’s work. Now his canvases were a bit more subdued, the intricate graphic wallpaper of the earlier pieces was stripped away and the silhouettes lay behind a dynamic wall of colorful dots. “The dots were initially a reaction to the bag of Skittles Trayvon Martin had when he was killed. But they are also the holes you find on target paper at a shooting range. They are dots on a map, representing different people, cultures.”

Franks focus on fearlessness had evolved into an exploration of suspicion; FEARLESS had become Suspicious Prisms. “I think I wanted to talk about how anyone can be turned into a suspect at any given time. People who are fearful of anyone or anything they don’t understand can easily paint a picture of suspicion,” says Franks. “But also people who do understand who you are and who fear what you are or what you present yourself as can also cast you in a prism of suspicion.”

Now, the prism has made its way into the work. Franks’ portraits are deconstructed into colorful cubist explorations of the shattered shelf.