Carris Adams challenges intersection of signs and assumptions with new exhibit

Students view the Sweepstakes Red exhibit in the Carlos Gallery. Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20).

By Sydney Leibfritz
Executive Staff

The art department recently hosted a reception and artist talk with Carris Adams, who opened her exhibit Sweepstakes Red in the Carlos Gallery on January 28.

Sweepstakes Red offers a series of paintings focused on text, language, textures, and images that invoke parallels with billboards, advertisements, and signs within public spaces and marginalized communities. By presenting these signs and symbols to viewers without the context of their location, Adams guides viewers to question and examine assumptions underlying their own perceptions of race, class, and gender.

Adams cites the title of the exhibit as coming from Paul Beatty’s book “The Sellout,” in which he describes the images on protest signs and the power of the color red he calls “Sweepstakes Red.” Adams felt the color resonate with her, even over the audiobook, and quickly made the color as a reference.

“When I feel stuck or stressed,” Adams explained, “I pick a color to focus all of my stress. For a long time, that color was red.”  

This became evident as she unintentionally incorporated Beatty’s shade of red into all of her paintings over the following days. Unable to ignore the artistic influence, she labelled her exhibit Sweepstakes Red to fit with the larger concerns of the works.

Adams, the Chicago-based artist behind the exhibit, described how her artistic process begins with a walk. As she walks down the streets of Chicago, she takes photos of signs that draw her attention or ones she has seen throughout her life and now sees something new within.

In these walks, she pays special attention to language, labels, and the way they are presented in the billboards or advertisements. By considering the language and signs as signifiers for the things they represent, Adams expressed interest exploring the visual and interpretative associations of publically painted space.

By using bright colors, varied layering techniques, half-written text, and experimentation with cracked paint, the exhibit takes inspiration from the decay of signs in different spaces and how these subtle changes serve as societal markers.

For example, one of her pieces focuses on the illegibility of a metallic sign despite the attention it draws in the sunlight and many others depict a similar confusion by painting over parts of the phrases to mirror the missing silhouettes of the neighborhood’s signs.

Additionally, her sources of inspiration come from strange or interesting word choices. Harold’s Chicken Shack, a Chicago chain restaurant, initially ascribed random numbers to their restaurants in order to give the illusion there was more of them than there was. Because they were not permitted to open any above the South Side border because of discrimination, these numbers were crucial in reclaiming authority.

Other labels like “socially conscious chicken” and “White Girl Rosè” within the neighborhoods she has visited inspired Adam’s interest in representations of gentrified and gendered spaces.

Sweepstakes Red will remain on display in the Carlos Gallery in the Nabit Art Building until March 14.