December 9, 2022

Arizona-born, Oakland-based artist Donald Bradford presents a solo show at Andrea Schwartz Gallery that is full of provocations. At first blush, the viewer will encounter naked mostly male forms draped, bound, and positioned individually or in a series. Many of the paintings are composed with painted dividing lines reminiscent of the triptych and are titled to evoke classical mythology or biblical parables, such as Lazarus, Icarus, and Jacob wrestling an angel. An intriguing aspect of this body of work is that Braford is returning to motifs and scenes that he first tackled 30 years ago.

Consciously or unconsciously, a painting captures a moment in time in the life of the artist. It’s a snapshot of its maker’s engagement with and reaction to inner experience and exterior conditions. So what is revealed when an artist embraces the “re-recording” of previous explorations? A famous example of this pursuit is the late great pianist Glenn Gould’s benchmark recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, first in 1955 at age 22, and in 1981, a quarter of a century later. The insights offered by Gould’s quite different recordings of the “Goldbergs’ ‘ seem to portray a difference between the frenetic, impatient energy of youth and a slower, more seasoned, self-reflective melancholy. The revelations suggested by Bradford’s variations, however, offer a beguiling twist on the expression of creative evolution.

Having seen photographs of Bradford’s earlier portraits of the models and stories now re-recorded in this exhibition, one can certainly note an advance in technical skill and greater narrative depth. Yet, where one might expect a slackening of exuberance and more ruminative, cerebral tone in later portraits, one finds the opposite. Bradford’s is an élan vital on overdrive. The artist is, if anything, doubling down in displaying the visual pleasures offered by the human form and the physical pleasures in the act of painting itself. This is less a backward-looking glance and more a diving into the present with renewed curiosity and gusto. 

Bradford’s loose, breezy mark-making bespeaks a mature hand that has lost none of its sensual interest but is simply more confident that a deft touch will yield the desired effect. The artist manages to maintain a fine balance between playfulness and serious intent. To create multiple portraits of Lazarus and of Saint Irene in the year 2022, and achieve something fresh and buoyant, is no small feat. These paintings feel modern. They pull you in. They hold you close.

A word about bondage might be in order now. What are all these ropes and wraps saying to us? Bradford was a teacher for many years. One of the exercises he used to help students achieve a sense of volume when drawing the human figure or any three-dimensional object, was to have them drap the form in fabric. Is that academic explanation the end of the story? As with any work of art, I’d suggest that the viewer’s own answer may be the most revealing. To this viewer, it appears that there is nothing so illustrative of the physicality of human yearning and the need for individual freedom of expression than a visible tether reining in such elemental, universal forces.

Bradford’s Lazarus Paintings resurrect powerful parables and breathe new life into lessons of sacrifice, resilience, and euphoria. The painting Finding Neverland references the film about Sir J.M. Barrie’s friendship with the family that stirred him to write his novel, Peter Pan. The model for Bradford’s painting is his late partner, the artist Richard Bassett. Bradford worked from photos of Bassett garbed in iconic props from the film and taken in the final weeks of his life. Singular paintings of a top hat and umbrella respectively are presented floating above the larger painting, which shows Bassett in a trinity of positions. The shadows behind the hat and umbrella bring to mind the story of Icarus flying towards the sun with wings stretched. 

The work in this witty and effecting show reminds us that myths serve not only as a compass in navigating daily existence but as a connection point across the arc of human experience and time itself. 

Text by Tamsin Smith for Juxtapoz