Magazine article Artforum International

Scrawl Space: Dan Nadel on Joe Bradley's "Krasdale," 2016

Magazine article Artforum International

Scrawl Space: Dan Nadel on Joe Bradley's "Krasdale," 2016

Article excerpt

THREE RECTANGLES of blue, yellow, and black underpin Joe Bradley's Mother and Child, 2016. In the top left corner of the painting, a yellow crescent is crowned, or perhaps being eclipsed, by a great gray disc, and strokes of red shore up the circular forms. This might feel like familiar modernist territory. But look closer: Weirdness seeps in.

At the far left edge of the canvas, a violence of red and black strikes a patch of tan. In the center, a single red stroke obscures a second yellow crescent. Blurts of green intrude into the blue, as does a substratum of yellow, which lurks in the blue and black areas. Step back from the work, let its design dissipate and the blue field recede: The doubled discs become heads, or perhaps wheels, and that brushy black space opens up like a stage, containing so many tones, strokes, scrapes, and flourishes that it seems to await an actor's entrance. If it is a narrative space, Bradley withholds obvious clues, diverting our attention with a title that refers to an obvious but nevertheless still powerful visual motif, just as he does with the tidily effective composition.

A recent show at Gagosian Gallery in New York titled "Krasdale" highlighted Bradley's particular way of suspending fixed meaning in his artwork. He is at once earnestly engaged with the narratives of emotive meaning and autobiography and also aware of the humor and absurdity of seeking and depicting those modes via painting. Balancing these two states of mind, Bradley creates a narrative arc across media that has, as its backbone, a particular kind of cartoon drawing. Cartoon not so much in the Pop or comic sense, but rather in its definition as an efficient, open-ended, shorthand mode of drawing, and as the scaffolding for representation in any media. Bradley's cartoon line veers into abstraction and out the other side, unscathed. Narrative always seems on the verge of coalescing, or perhaps on the verge of breaking down.

Bradley's work over the past dozen years shares breath with Philip Guston's turn toward the figurative that began in the early 1960s and culminated later that decade with works that both embraced and examined the limits of '20s comic-strip languages--using a knobby knee, for example, as a departure for a picture about psychological fragility. Two other lodestars for Bradley are H. C. Westermann and, in Bradley's most recent abstractions, Alexander Calder. Westermann, like Guston, examined his life and surroundings via a graphic contour and decidedly unorthodox approach to sculpture, which grounded surreal juxtapositions in immaculate craftsmanship and North American vernacular symbols. Calder, who in his '50s and '60s cosmos paintings used imperfectly rendered geometric forms to create a whimsical galaxy, was, like Bradley, Westermann, and Guston, a master of scale and the provisional line.

All of these concerns and references are visible in another complex painting from "Krasdale," Day World, 2016. A mountainous black wave bisects the picture, engulfing the bottom half of a windblown fleshy circle and rimming the top of a thickly painted green orb sitting in a yellow clutch. The connection between these two orbs, or heads, is both narrative and compositional. Day World asks us to imagine what the two heads are talking about, there in those monumental, variable spaces. Who said what to whom, and why? They may indeed be related to the floating forms we see in early 1963 in Guston's work, or just as easily to the orbs in Calder's starscapes. Here, Bradley does not appropriate these painters, but rather joins them--his antic cartoon sense drains the angst from Guston and the whimsy from Calder, leaving behind bemused mystery.

Mother and Child and Day World are carefully ambiguous paintings, conceived to reward multiple viewings, uncanny in how determinedly they escape easy contemporary readings as riffs on modernism's various ends. They defy being understood as fashionable nods to technology, networks, immateriality--all those things by which some artists conceive of relevance. …

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