"I know straight away they're thinking dog portraits, like the little umbrella, the cute poodle, and it's not that,” says Adams scornfully. "I'm trying to do something different with these.”
Bright midday sunlight streams through the sliding glass doors, illuminating Adams as he moves about his paint-splattered studio, a tiny room in the same house he's lived in since he was a child. In the middle of the room, a small wooden desk is loaded with giant messy tubes of oils and tools heavily encrusted with dried-up gobs of paint. Thick rainbow-colored stalactites of it hang from his easel and the oriental carpet underfoot is similarly decorated with multi-hued drippings.
The pale yellow walls are covered with his current canon: almost 100 8-by-10-inch depictions of canines frozen in various moments of doggie behavior. The canvases are hung so close together, they almost create one gigantic piece.
On the wall showcasing his earlier work, the dogs-mostly small breeds-are painted in realistic shades against bold and basic colored backgrounds, most of them with their faces looking straight out from the canvas. On the opposite wall, the backgrounds become softer, more subtly hued. These dogs are captured from a greater distance, in different stages of motion and with more shadows, many of them facing away from the viewer. These are less cartoonish-if possible, simultaneously more realistic and more abstract.
Adams reflects characteristics of the small dogs he paints. His nose is pointy and his closely shorn gray hair bristles softly from his cranium. A diminutive man, he moves his 63-inch frame around the room in energetic spurts. His voice is high and sort of reedy, and when he speaks, his thoughts tend to emerge in an circular flow, like a dog chasing its tail. He's admittedly compulsive, gets nervous in crowds and half-jokingly speculates that he may have been a dog in a previous life.
"There's something in the face; I just love dogs,"Adams says. "I realized I like them better than I like people.”
Adams, 58, never planned to become an artist. He drifted after high school, attending Mesa College for six years, keeping a C average and dodging the draft by keeping his weight under 100 pounds. He recalls being captivated by the sight and smell of paint in the art studios, but was discouraged when told he'd have to take a drawing class before he could paint.
"I draw, but I'm not really interested in that,"he says, "so I didn't.”
It was only once he was out of school, working in a mailroom for the school district, that he was inspired by a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art.
"His paintings aren't shown that much, and they're beautiful paintings,"Adams says, explaining that he preferred the rich texture of Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings to the flat, even quality of his more famous posters.
"I'd read about him, and he's small, and I'm small, and the whole thing,"Adams says, "and I thought that was kind of neat, so I bought an acrylic set.”
He also bought a ton of art books. Of particular interest to Adams was the philosophy of 20th-century figurative painter Francis Bacon, most well known for his dark, twisted depictions of human bodies and faces.
Bacon, who matured as a painter in the 1950s and '60s, was part of an artistic generation that scorned realism, likening it to mere illustration, as opposed to art. Bacon believed the process of drastically altering familiar images gives them the power to affect people in the gut instead of the brain.
"Why would I want to take a month or a year to work on something so it would look like a photo?"Adams says. "I want to see the work. I love the paint, the feel. It's thick, built up. It might look a little more childish than the other ones, but I love that.”
He's talking about impasto-style painting, where brushstrokes are visible and the image moves into the third dimension. It's here, Adams says, where you can see an artist's "fingerprint.”
So, where do the dogs come in?
Adams says they're his anchors to reality. "I guess inside me I'm almost like an abstract expressionist, but I don't have the courage to get rid of the subject matter,"he says. "There has to be something there that I'm painting, otherwise I feel like I'm cheating.”
He says there's a thin but very important line between what he creates-fine art, albeit with dogs-and the hordes of commercial artists using the same subject matter.
"I know some of these are cutesy,"Adams says, "but I'm not in pet stores or stuff like that. There are hundreds of people doing dogs, everywhere.”
Adams says he's no longer interested in selling his work and particularly loathes being commissioned to paint something.
"It's usually some horrendous dog, and I just don't want to do a big hairy dog,"he says adamantly. "I know if I advertised, and I wanted to, I could have these lined up, but I want to paint the way I want to.”
Painting the way he wants to seems to be working. His art is regularly in juried shows at the San Diego Art Institute, and he says the reaction he gets from local curators pleases him.
"I'm getting into shows that normally dog painters don't get in,"Adams says. "That's what I mean about the fine line. I'm crossing over into the fine art using the dogs, but they're not dog portraits. Believe me, [curators] wouldn't get near that stuff.”
Adams has only one dog-Nica, a 5-year-old American hairless terrier that's fond of her red sweater and licking the ankles of visiting reporters. She used to belong to his son-in-law, but she's lived with Adams and his wife, artist Anna Jenkins, for the past four years.
Adams has been painting dogs for just about as long. He says he still considers himself a figurative painter, but he's not interested in painting people any more.
"People say, ‘Don't you get bored doing dogs?'"he says. "A figurative painter can do the human figure all [his life]. There's a lot more differences in dogs than there are in the human figure."
He has, however, recently let a faceless human figure creep into the dog series, inspired by a photo he saw in a magazine. Adams is fond of that particular painting but isn't sure he'll continue along that vein.
"Maybe the figures will turn into something, but I kind of like the dogs,"he says. "These are my figurative works. These are my people."