There are many very old paintings that are a lot cleaner than Joe Bradley’s new works, recently on view in “Mouth and Foot Painting” at Gavin Brown’s enterprise. Bradley leaves his unprimed canvases on his studio floor so as to pick up dirt; footprints, the odd handprint and stuck-on bits of refuse testify to their time underfoot. This rough treatment only adds to the allure of the paintings’ primitivist style.
The New York artist (born in Maine in 1975) previously exhibited paintings consisting of raw canvas in painted-wood frames as well as large multi-panel works that resemble Ellsworth Kelly canvases arranged into comical figures (some of these were included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial). The “Schmagoo Paintings” he showed at Canada in 2008 seemed designed to be less than paintings; he drew, say, the Superman S or a single horizontal line in grease pencil on unprimed supports, leading a Frieze reviewer to call these efforts retarded.
The works at Gavin Brown offered a lot more visual appeal. It’s easy to see Basquiat, Guston and cave painting in their messy, bold lines and weathered textures. In these large abstractions, scribbled-looking passages in bright colors are set against areas of canvas marked only with dirt; my eyes moved restlessly over them, sometimes unable to decide where to focus. The canvases are painted on both sides, so that faint areas of flat color, visible from the back, are in dialogue with heavily painted areas on the front, which often include contrasting colors laid over each other. The result is real visual electricity.
In one of the best works, the approximately 9-by-11-foot Strut, abstraction and figuration are in play as various swaths of roughly brushed, shapeless patches of bright yellow, blue, black and brown vie for attention toward the center, and at left, what might be a peach-hued Giacomettiesque head in profile rests on what look like two long, spindly appendages and a horizontal base. The painting’s surface is broken up by several highly visible seams, pulling our attention from the imagery to the support.
The humor in his earlier work is still evident. In Mouth and Foot (Cock and Balls), overlapping square and circular shapes in black and green at left, one of them bleeding through from the other side, rest at the base of a phallic outline in black that, at its tip, strangely houses a Basquiatesque image of a window frame. An 8-by-6-foot canvas is centered on a solid brown mass with a large brown circle and some brown squiggles atop it; it suggests a figure, an impression borne out by the painting’s title, Pigpen (#2), which includes the name of a filthy character from “Peanuts.”
In “Human Form,” at Canada, Bradley showed a number of large white canvases silkscreened with one or two male silhouettes in black, in attitudes he described in an Art in America web interview as “kind of ridiculous Egyptian-style poses.” The press release valiantly makes a case for them as engaging in the age-old figure-ground tension, but there’s no friction in the works to support the claim. They seem jokey by comparison to the rich works at Brown.
Photo: Joe Bradley: Strut, 2010, oil on canvas, 110 by 130 inches; at Gavin Brown’s enterprise.