“For there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”
— Herman Melville, from Moby Dick
The latest John Bradford exhibit at Zorina Gallery shows works in a style, history painting, that’s been out of favor with the art establishment for many decades. All the paintings’ subjects come from the 19th century or before, and relate to momentous events relating to the USA and the Americas: arrival of the Mayflower, of Columbus, Washington’s revolution, Lincoln’s wars. Bradford’s technique, thick impasto, has also fallen out of favor and is found more often in street market art: think Paris-view at sunset. What is a blueblood painter, if ever there was one — he is a descendant of William Bradford, the English Puritan separatist who escaped persecution from King James I on the Mayflower and became the longstanding Governor of the Plymouth Colony, known thereafter as the Pilgrim Fathers — doing producing low art?
The dichotomy between low art and high art can be characterized with different vocabularies and concepts: folk art vs court art, popular art vs fine art, naïve vs erudite. The audience differs, too: the first less moneyed, and less educated, and the same can be said of its artists. Before the Romantic era, categories were defined along lines of class: folk art and court art. Historical paintings by Veronese, Velasquez, Poussin, and others were very much favored by the nobility as they legitimized their claim to privilege and power. In France, the conservative Académie des Beaux-Arts ran the Paris Salon, which exhibited historical paintings, sentimental scenes, realistic landscapes and citiscapes, Pre-Raphaelite representations of an impersonal, perfect beauty. From 1863, Edouard Manet and his cohort reacted to the official salon by showing at Le Salon des Refusés. They rejected all the genres exhibited at the official Salon and favored personal expression and the representation of the painter’s world, whether it was a working class café, a garden full of lilies, or the backside of a train station. According to Bradford, “Cezanne said, ‘What art needs is to re-do Poussin over again after nature.’ There is something both nostalgic and unsentimental in that: he was yearning for permanence that could affirm his intuitive sensations, even as the values that had sustained permanence seemed to be evaporating around him.” Paradoxically, Modern art, which was born in the mutinous Salon des Indépendants (formerly Le Salon des Refusés), ended up dictating what constitutes high art versus low art. High art is expected to stay away from educating, or promoting institutions such as the church or the government which had been its mainstay point for centuries. In theory, art reflects the painter’s needs and desires rather than its audience’s, to guarantee authenticity and integrity.
Bradford’s Columbus Landing lacks deliberately everything that characterizes a historical painting. The conquerors are microscopic, and their heroic deeds too diminutive to impress. Instead, we are presented with a painting of a tropical landscape, something tourists to the Caribbean might bring back in their suitcase. The three basic elements — water, beach and vegetation — come together in a composition as simple as a child’s drawing. Left is toward Europe, right is America, and the colors are bright and happy to the point of being naïve. Tourists might flatter themselves that Islanders are primitive, just as Columbus indulged when he arrived with his offerings of tinsel. The painting reminds us that there are two sides to the myth of the “discovery” of the Americas, the landing seen from the remote position of an observer (a native? posterity?) on high grounds. The event looks deceivingly less forbidding than it should, considering its toxic impact on the indigenous population: just a bunch of guys landing on a lovely beach.
The English pilgrim, all deceitful obsequiousness, also looks like he’s offering tinsel to Massasoit, dignified decorative as a totem, in Meeting of Massasoit and the English at Plymouth. Bradford’s thick impasto stresses in these two paintings the simple naïveté inherent to the scene, in contrast to the tragic history that resulted in reality from the conquest.
The technique of impasto has a long and convoluted history. Painters started using thicker oil paints in Baroque times. For Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velasquez and many more, the new technique gave an immediate materiality to their paintings, and caught the light more effectively than the flatter techniques used before. The technique allowed a lifelike presence to the paintings, and increased the illusion of tridimensionality. In the 19th century, Manet popularized wet on wet technique which made for a more spontaneous process, but impasto was still used by impressionists such as Monet, and maverick van Gogh. When expressionism followed impressionism, impasto became thicker, applied sometimes with a blunt instrument or even the tip of the finger, stressing the gesture of the artist. In the second half of the 20th century, the technique was adapted by abstract expressionism, de Kooning a prime example, as well as figurative expressionists such as Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud. Nowadays, impasto has been superseded by other post expressionist techniques. Since art as the personal expression of the artist is a well accepted concept, it does not have to be hammered on anymore. As Foucault said, “man is dead.”
Art is focusing again on the world rather than expressing the artist’s psyche. Techniques that transact in distance, and objectivity are regaining popularity with painters. David Hockney uses flat acrylic, while the contemporary school of figurative painting tends to stay away from expressionist techniques. Impasto means dough or mixture, and some of the coats on Bradford’s paintings are nearly one inch thick, turning the object into a sculpture, or at least a low relief. The paintings are at their most figurative when viewed from far, while up close they are rather abstract. Bradford’s use of impasto can be read as a metaphor both for his approach to content and for his style as he refers to numerous European painters of the 18th century, and to American painters of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The paintings for sale on the streets or on ebay for a couple of hundred dollars often adopt styles and techniques that are not current in the “high art” scene, and have passed into popular culture. Impressionism and thick impasto for trompe l’oeil effects are amongst favorites, as well as bright sunsets. Their lurid colors light up the background of several Bradford pieces, such as Lincoln and His Generals By The Sea.
This use of impasto and of color effects can be read as an homage to popular art. Why should the definition of high art always be dictated by the affluent, and by institutions run primarily by that same social class? A number of contemporary scholars and curators are revisiting “low art,” questioning the societal implications of “high art,” and revisiting the genres rejected by Le Salon Des Refusés. In Paris, Petit Palais’s exhibition entitled Romantic Paris showcased a lot of the work we have been told to despise such as historic paintings, and citiscapes executed with meticulous objectivity.
The representation of water, with its challenges of reflection and transparency, is a common motif in “low art” as it naively proves the proficiency of the painter. With his thick impasto, Bradford manages spectacular effects, such as the water reflections produced with extremely rough crisscrossing of the brush in The Confidence Man. This very large painting, at 60″ x 78,” represents a steamship, in reference to the novel of the same name by Hermann Melville, which explores the theme of trust. The ship might come across as the picture of optimistic Americana, but is the man nominally helming our nation now worthy of our trust? The unnatural slant of the scene to the right will make it hard-going for the ship, wherever it might be going.
Bradford’s sense of color is also impeccable, as in the scene of Washington Crossing The Delaware, which foregoes the use of white, except for the horse, to depict winter. Its tones chill the viewer to the bone, these dark greys, greens, purples emphasizing the stark absence of warmth from the sun. Its composition replicates closely a painting by Edward Hicks with the same title.
A number of paintings of Washington Crossing the Delaware were produced in the 19th century. The most famous is a painting by Emmanuel Leutze, who wanted to convince Europeans of emulating Washington’s fight for democracy. In this heroic painting, Washington leads his troops amidst contrary currents. But Bradford’s version refers to the painting by Thomas Sully or by Edward Hicks. Bradford probably had Hicks in mind despite Sully’s version being more famous, as Hicks has an American flavor to his work, a kind of naïve eagerness found in folk art. He mentions him in his list of American artists he admires. In Hicks’ painting, Washington holds a pause more stoic than heroic, calm and powerful in the face of danger. The composition is somewhat confusing, and that might have caught John Bradford’s attention. The general seems to be going in a different direction from his soldiers, and his sight is directed at something off canvas, one would guess the future of the young Republic. Bradford increases the confusion by blurring further the direction in which the troops are moving. The eagle perched on a desolate tree looks singularly like a vulture.
Washington knew where he wanted his young Republic to go, but is that where the Republic is now, 200 years later? If Washington were witness to the current state of The Land, he might well be depicted as one less confident, calm or impressively powerful as he’s been traditionally presented on canvas. Rather, his face might express one of horror at the corruption and lack of values that characterize this nation’s current governing body. Washington might have known personally some of John Bradford’s ancestors who were in politics. The Bradfords, descended from the governor of Plymouth in the 17th century, could be the very family that owned the ancestors of revered artist Mark Bradford, as mere point of conjecture.
How does one deal with that kind of past, that kind of responsibility in the making of modern America? John Bradford takes it straight on, exploring our relationship to the past, questioning how our founding principles have fared. Several paintings, such as Washington Victorious, have the light and hues of a spring morning full of bold promise and budding life. So too does Washington Returns to Mount Vernon, which borrows more deliberately from naïve tradition with its ungainly horse scavenging for grass, in that same fresh, pure spring that smells of clean laundry, from before industrialization.
This affection for the naïve, both in terms of style and content, expresses recognition for art outside established institutions of power and learning. Naïve art holds on to simpler values, as people with lesser education often do, than the work usually found in galleries. Approaching the Promised Land promises a new day, full of hope, with its delicate dawn echoing those of Lorrain, while the depiction of its chaotic crowd winks slyly to Poussin.
Some of the more complex paintings, such as Washington Crossing The Delaware, demand time and attention to figure out the composition and subject, to take in the subtlety of the colors, while others have a more immediate effect. In the large painting Mayflower November 11, 1620, the ship is set against a breathtaking arctic landscape of water, rock, ice, glacial light. The simple, effective composition looks straight on at the ship and its background. With its assured palette of greys and blues and yellows, it makes for a stunning marine painting!
The depiction of the vessel, fragile as a toy, rounded, lonely, works as a symbol of the future of the colony, but is also realistic in that ships from that period do look perilously small to the modern eye. A small silhouette and a lit up porthole are the only signs of human presence. In this momentous instant, the ship looks frozen in time and space, despite its sails being unfurled and bulbous to the wind. An emblem of life and of hope, a treeling is growing on what could be Plymouth Rock to the right, within close reach of the Mayflower, should it move in that direction. This young plant will need care and good judgment to turn into a tree capable of providing for a whole nation.
Moby Dick, large, too, at 60”x78”, is another spectacular painting. On the whole a powerful metaphor for our times, the painting communicates a necessary terror, as it well should. We have exploited nature, witlessly believing we controlled it and always would. Now, Nature, having been so maltreated, mishandled — the huge whale here is its all-too-apt symbol — may well slap us all down into an unfathomable oblivion. In the background, a steamship sends its befouling smoke to join an immense, looming cloud in ominous shades, which only further forebodes our oncoming doom.
While prodding our myths, Bradford keeps a playfulness, and a deep love and respect for the art of painting, as well as for his country: “But more crucial,” he tells us, “is that my paintings are Watteau’s Lorrain, Picasso’s Poussin made over once again after the Americans: Hicks, Ryder, Hartley, Inness, Eilshemius, Gorky, de Kooning, Guston, Pousette-Dart. After all… I am trying to find expression for the abiding love I have for my country even as the values that sustain it are seen by many to be evaporating.” He finds expression for that abiding love with a gallant flamboyance that has nothing puritan about it.
[Note: Prices are listed, a transparent practice that has been disappearing from Chelsea galleries.]
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Arabella Hutter von Arx is Paris and New York City Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.