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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

PETER BRADLEY'S ANNUS MIRABILIS AT KARMA

Peter Bradley, Scrapple From The Apple" (2021), Acrylic and glass on canvas, 85 x 84 inches (215.9 x 213.4 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Karma, New York

 

This has been what might be called a miraculous year for Peter Bradley. After decades of being nearly if not entirely ignored, his painting has been included in no fewer than three exhibitions.  One was a show of contemporary artists organized by Hilton Als, the New Yorker theater critic. Second was a tribute to the "De Luxe Show," an interracial exhibition organized by Bradley in 1971 (I reviewed this tribute on September 5).  Third (in Karma's space at 22 East Second Street, through November 13) is the one I review below.  It is a solo show of nine pictures made by Bradley over the past six years.  They range in size from medium to large and though I didn't relate equally to all of them, on the whole I'd call this an exceedingly  handsome show – a real tour de force for a man of 81.

 

To be sure, I've been following Bradley's career for years, starting with mentioning a diamond-shaped canvas of his that appeared in a group show organized by James Little around 2001 for Steve Cannon's gallery, "a gathering of the tribes."

 

On June 14, 2019, I reviewed a show of smaller paintings by Bradley at Emerge, a gallery in Saugerties, NY, the town where Bradley lives. I included a certain amount of information in that review (and in my more recent review of the De Luxe show tribute) concerning Bradley's background, education and earlier career both as a dealer and as a painter, so here I'll focus instead on this latest display of his talents.

 

Most of the work in this show utilizes a technique that Bradley has (to the best of my limited knowledge) been employing off and on since the later '60s (certainly there was a fine example of it dating from 1973 in the tribute to the De Luxe Show).  

 

Ultimately, the technique derives from the soak-stain method that originated with Helen Frankenthaler back in the 1950s.   However nobody with what painters call "an eye" could possibly mistake a Bradley for a Frankenthaler, or vice versa. Nor could anybody with an "eye" mistake a Kenneth Noland or a Morris Louis for a Bradley or vice versa (to name just the two painters best known to have been likewise inspired by Frankenthaler's technique)

 

As Bradley has developed his unique and distinctive style over the decades, it is founded on laying down successive layers of paint with different properties.  The bottom layers sink into the unsized canvas and spread out into larger blurrier forms, but the top layers are spritzed on and remain distinct as a rain of flecks on the surface of the bottom layer(s) of paint.

 

At least, most of the paintings in the current show employ this technique -- but not all of them. This show divides itself into two parts, housed in two adjoining paces at 22 East Second Street. Each of these spaces has different qualities to recommend it.

 

The back space is the smaller one, and houses just three paintings, on three of its four walls. The two paintings on the side walls are a bit smaller and untitled, but the bigger one, in the center, is called "Catch It Willie" (2015).

 

The title refers to a famous catch made by Willie Mays, the Giants' legendary center-fielder during the 1954 World Series. It choked off the Cleveland Indians' game-winning run and enabled the Giants to win the game instead – and the Series. Bradley would have been a teen-ager in 1954 – just the right age to appreciate it.

 

To me, the big stained-in form that constitutes the undercoat in this picture looks like an old-fashioned power shovel descending to pick up some gravel in a city construction site. To the artist, I would assume that it was reminiscent of a fielder's glove – after he had made it, of course – I don't for a minute believe it was his intention to depict a fielder's glove before he painted it. 

 

This dual possibility (of power shovel and fielder's glove) is to me yet another example of what I have called "multireferential imagery" and what makes true abstraction so different from "uni-referential" or representational art.

 

All three of these paintings are practically perfect examples of this long-time style of Bradley's.   All combine larger areas of looser underpainting with flecks of overpainted color. They harmonize with their color schemes: all are built around forest green, mint, mauve and purple.   These combinations create a very fine sight.

 

It is, however, in the front gallery that Bradley takes his courage in both hands and throws away his rulebook. True, there are two more excellent examples of his more usual technique here, "Clarence Reese's Space" (2020) and "Salt Peanuts" (2021).  But dominating the space are two very large paintings differing from the rest.

 

The larger one, "Coravilas" (2021) is eleven feet high, and plays lively games with soaring patches and lines of green and yellow, but the one that charmed me most is seven feet square and may have taken Bradley clear back to his childhood in Pennsylvania.

 

Its title is "Scrapple from the Apple," and scrapple is a breakfast delicacy made of fried pork and cornmeal that the "Pennsylvania Dutch" brought with them when they emigrated from Germany to settle in Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries.

 

But hold on!  "Scrapple From The Apple" is also the title of a 1947 bebop composition by Charlie Parker so again we have a double level of meaning – in the title of this painting, anyway.

 

And not just in the title. There are few if indeed any flecks in this painting.  Instead it is dominated by two huge stained-in and widely spread-out ovals of deep brown, one below and one above.

 

 It can be read as a giant face, with mouth wide open, or as a giant – opened -- clam, and in the end, it doesn't really matter.  What matters is the overwhelming presence that this image has – enlivened as it is only by a small red spike in the top center, and a little blue patch over on the top left, glistening with bits of glass.

 

And "Scrapple From The Apple" sure has presence.  I defy anybody to walk past it without pausing to take a second and even a sixth look at it.

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