Arts & Culture

Magical Mystery Tour de Force

Uncovering fantasy in photo-realistic portraiture


The photo-realistic nature of this dark feminine depiction is deceiving: something’s just a bit… off. The portrait itself stirs curiosity; a yearning to know more about the face reflected in the canvas with brows furrowed, hands to temples in a recognizable gesture of serious contemplation. Stare long enough and one could get lost in the mesmerizing and meticulous fluidity of geometric patterns.

Uncovering the abstract in reality is the very essence of Rebecca Mason Adams’ work, as captured in one of her own favorite paintings, an acrylic representation of a girl in a patterned blouse, hunched over a mirror. “That piece was a big turning point for me,” explains the Providence-based painter from her cozy East Side apartment. “People really responded. It gave me the confidence to experiment with different lighting and other ideas for patterns, which has been the basis of everything I’ve done since.”

While daring lines and intricate designs are more recent elements of Rebecca’s phantasmagorical photo-realistic portraits, her ability to evoke the unsettling quality that exists in the mundane is present in her early photographic work. Adams’ explorations in photography began in adolescence (she cites famous film director/photographer Cindy Sherman’s Complete Untitled Film Stills as one major middle school influence) and continued to blossom at RISD. “[In] my senior year of high school I was spending every free second in the dark room and got obsessed with black and white photography,” states Rebecca. “Even back when I was studying [at RISD], everything I did had that draw, that hint of surrealism and that hint of other-worldliness… like a visual uncertainty.”

As with many college graduates, Rebecca hit a creative wall in the post-academic world. “I didn’t feel confident enough in myself to just go out and make art. So I didn’t. I made art for myself in my house and I started experimenting because it was always in me to do that.” The jump from photography to painting was almost inevitable. Even in college, Rebecca would use acrylics instead of film to represent an idea during photo class critiques. “It may have been odd, but at least they were seeing my process,” she considers.

Her first acrylic collection came in the form of found vintage portraits, which she would discover online and then replicate in paint. “They were very loose and free and I was trying to relay the emotion I felt within the images,” she explains. These stylized vintage pieces lined the walls of various spots throughout the city, like Julian’s and Machines with Magnets. Some were incorporated into the album artwork of Providence-based band, Daughters. “I love that it exists, but part of me cringes a little because I’ve come so far since then. The progression makes me proud,” Rebecca says with a smile.

Eventually feeling uninspired by found imagery, Rebecca reconnected with photography and began using her own original photos as source material, allowing for complete curatorial control of her entire artistic process: choosing the model, setting up the scene and discerning which visually-compelling objects or fabrics to integrate, as well as lighting, editing and, finally, re-interpreting the entire image onto canvas. “I really wanted to branch out and explore the idea of ‘what is a pattern,’” shares Rebecca, when describing her more recent work. “I wanted to use more organic repetitions [and] reflections – water, glass, mirrors.”
Her brush strokes have grown to be so precise that one might not immediately recognize her paintings to be handcrafted. But, after gazing into the juxtaposition of deep darks and stark brights of an Adams’ portrait, rich with texture, reality seems to slip into something strange.

“It’s all about taking something that can be considered boring and normal - like a girl in a striped shirt - to an uncomfortable or dreamy place,” says Rebecca. “It’s meant to give you that feeling of ‘what am I looking at?’ even though you know exactly what you’re looking at.”

Rebecca Mason Adams 

Rebecca Mason Adams, painting, portraiture, photography, RISD, Rhode Island School of Design, East Side, Providence, Rhode Island, Machines with Magnets, Daughters, Julians, Cindy Sherman, Cindy Sherman Complete Untitled Film Stills, Rebecca Adams


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