ArtWeekend

An Ivory Tower Artist: Joe Bradley’s Recent Paintings, Sculptures, and Drawings

Joe Bradley, “TBT” (2016), wood, 13 1/2 x 18 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches (34.3 x 47 x 19.1 cm) (© Joe Bradley. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Robert McKeever)

Interestingly enough, a swarm of quotes came to mind while I was walking around the two floors of Joe Bradley’s first exhibition, Joe Bradley: KRASDALE, at the uptown outpost of Gagosian Gallery (April 2 – May 3, 2016). The first was something Donald Judd wrote in his famous manifesto, “Specific Objects” (1964): “A work needs only be interesting.” By that standard, Bradley’s exhibition of paintings, sculpture and drawings passes the test.

The second quote came from an artist I admire, and – make no mistake about it – someone who likes Bradley’s work very much. Speaking about his first shows in New York, the artist said: “He lowered the bar for all of us, and we had to deal with that.”

I am still puzzling over this intriguing and challenging observation. I find myself considering it from different angles. Is this what Kenneth Goldsmith, the well-known purveyor of uncreative writing, did to poetry? He lowered the bar. Is that one reason why he irks so many people? Does Bradley’s work bug some people for a similar reason? Does it partake too readily of what has become the “my kid could do this” aesthetic? Judd’s observation comes back to mind: Does being irksome continue to be interesting? And if so, why?

Installation View of “Joe Bradley: Krasdale” (Artworks © Joe Bradley. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Robert McKeever) (click to enlarge)

The third and fourth quotations are inseparable, like conjoined twins. In her essay, “Irony, Sincerity…Is There a Third Pill?” (ART21 Magazine, July/August 2015), Angela Dufresne opened with this statement:

I will begin with a quote from Eric Fischl: “There’s nothing insincere about irony.” I couldn’t agree more. And I can’t bear the presumed opposition any longer. Can’t sincerity and irony live in relational ambivalence, for minds that can handle a pinch, or even a punch, of complexity? And who benefits from drawing such lines?

Later, Dufresne wrote:

The art-world media places everyone into categories faster than you can say sixty-nine. For example, one is either provisional or rigorous, male or female, modern or post-, abstract or representational, gay or straight, ironic or sincere, personal or conceptual…

I was reminded of Dufresne’s remarks when I read the press release for Bradley’s show, which began his statement:

I like the idea of a work of art containing both irony and sincerity. Let ’em fight it out.

I think that painting relates very neatly to inner travel and the exploration of inner worlds. With painting, I always get the impression that you’re sort of entering into a shared space. There’s everyone who has painted in the past, and everyone who is painting in the present.

The fact that Bradley is not in the same league as Dufresne is not a point I want to dwell on: I just want to put this observation out there. Bradley understands irony and sincerity as combatants, while Dufresne takes this pairing’s “relational ambivalence” to another, tougher and more resonant level.

Another thing that caught my attention was Bradley’s seemingly idealistic remark about a shared space. Is this fictive studio space inhabited by everyone or is it primarily the domain of privileged white males? There is a reason why I am asking this question, which I will address shortly. The next quote comes from another artist that I admire and have written about:

Abstraction is just another tool in the box.

This is the impasse that art, particularly painting, has reached: there is no clear way to proceed. I think this is a good thing, but I am not in the majority.

Installation View of “Joe Bradley: Krasdale” (Artworks © Joe Bradley. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Robert McKeever) (click to enlarge)

Bradley’s response to that dilemma has been to make discrete bodies of work, and then move on. He has arranged differently sized monochromatic panels to evoke a Pac-Man-like world populated by authority figures that a child would be entertained by. He has used a grease pencil to draw linear emblems on canvas, and he has made chalky, “primitive” abstractions of variously colored shapes on a dirty, often creased canvas.

There is a current of whimsy running throughout Bradley’s work – mixed with some rather familiar avant-garde posing (“Ha, can your child really do this?”) – that puts some people off, while others love it. His work suggests that once Bradley conceives of his project, he is able to pass effortlessly through the style, like an adept actor able to play any role as long as it isn’t too serious and doesn’t require a lot of feeling. In fact, Bradley’s whimsical, child-like work comes across as rather cheerless, like a box of sour balls.

In the large open space on Gagosian’s sixth floor, the artist is showing his most recent body of work, horizontal abstract paintings. They all share what has been called “drop cloth esthetic,” involving a seamed canvas support popularized by Julian Schnabel and, to my mind, more effectively utilized by Chris Martin. It is a way of undermining the high-minded seriousness long associated with abstraction. They are a continuation of Bradley’s riff on child-like imagery.

Compositionally, Bradley divides the horizontal canvas into three or four rectangular areas, which he paints a solid color: green, yellow, red, blue, and black – for the most part, primary and secondary colors. He also adds a solid circle, around which part of another circle emerges or haloes, like a stage of an eclipse. His approach is in the vein of landscape abstraction with just the right dollop of “child-like” imagery blended in. Some critics have mentioned Adolph Gottlieb – an artist I have always found rather dull – as an inspiration. But being inspired by a minor artist is hardly a sin.

Installation View of “Joe Bradley: Krasdale” (Artworks © Joe Bradley. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Robert McKeever) (click to enlarge)

At the same time, you can see from the colors flaring out along the edges of the rectangles that he worked for some time on the painting, and that it didn’t just arrive. The colors are bright, the surface chalky. By some measure, these are large, commanding paintings full of strong color, with sections in black adding just the right amount of somberness. I don’t think these are insincere or even ironic paintings. And I don’t think they are shallow or empty. They are, as Judd would say, interesting and, equally important, easy to remember.

In the two adjoining spaces downstairs, Bradley is smaller paintings in one area and drawings and sculptures in the other. One painting, done in a pseudo-primitivist style, depicts the silhouette of a featureless brown figure walking towards (or away from) a similarly–sized, blue tree. This is a well-behaved suburban version of A.R. Penck and Donald Baechler, something to look at but not think about.

This is what Bradley excels at on a good day: he defuses a well-known style, image, or form of presentation with just enough of a twist to make it seem fresh. He makes art of the moment without addressing the moment or anything else, which has long been a celebrated strain in American art.

Bradley’s wood and bronze sculptures seem like things he might have found at a yard sale or second-hand store. He cast a small, obsolete, portable television into bronze, knowingly stirring up comparisons with Ed and Nancy Keinholz’s editioned sculpture, “The Block Head” (1981), a television made of a construction block, a lens and a transistor radio.

Joe Bradley, “TBT” (2016), bronze, 27 x 18 x 11 1/4 inches (68.6 x 45.7 x 28.6 cm). Edition of 4, plus 1 AP (© Joe Bradley. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Robert McKeever) (click to enlarge)

There is a black-patinaed bronze of a figure lying on its back, knees slight drawn up, hands covering its eyes, that smacks of a high school art project. There is an editioned wood sculpture of a child’s toy car occupied by a large head with exaggerated African American features, and a white bronze of an African American head with long cornrows on a plain, block-like platform, alongsidee a vertical, four-sided support topped by an oversized light bulb, complete with screw-in fixture and switch (shades of Jasper Johns!).

There is something flippant and offensive about these two sculptures that makes me question Bradley’s use of the phrase “shared space.” The small scale of these and the other sculptures suggests that they are supposed to be placed on a table or desk. The question is: whose table or desk? What kinds of conversations are they meant to inspire? “Oh, look how big his lips are (wink, wink)!”

Is Bradley trying to be funny? What is so funny about making a work of art that comes directly out of white society’s racist depictions of African Americans? Is Bradley going to claim that he is commenting on America’s racist legacy – or as the poet Nathaniel Mackey recently put it, “America’s race war” – because if he is, I am not buying it. These two sculptures use of the guise of art to camouflage well-known racist exaggerations. I am not being P.C. to point that out, since they are so obviously similar to descriptions associated with the term “negroid.” I also don’t think this is a misstep on the artist’s part, though I am sure a lot of critics will try and explain it that way. The best thing that you can say about these two works is that Bradley doesn’t seem to have a clue about what is going on in America right now: aided by the art world, he has reached a plateau of privilege that turns a blind eye to the world teeming down below.

Joe Bradley: KRASDALE continues at Gagosian Gallery (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 3.

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