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Robert Brady @ B. Sakata Garo

"Natomas 1,2,3", wood, 92" x 12" x 23"

Bob Brady has made a career out of creating lithe, attenuated figures out of wood whose inscrutable countenances long ago became iconic within Bay Area art. For his sparseness and economy of means, Brady has been compared to Giacometti whose signature trait –ragged gauntness – is echoed in two other Northern California artists: Manuel Neri and Stephen de Staebler. But where the latter two extend Giacometti’s portrayal of existential angst through rough-surfaced figures that seem to be laboring under great stress, Brady’s sculpture has always conveyed the exact opposite: transcendence and grace.  

In particular, his see-through stick figures, now on view now at b. sakata garo, seem to float outside of time — not exactly in a gravity-free zone — but in a realm where antiquity meets the present. While Brady works primarily with the figure, his art has never really been about the figure in the way that, say, de Staebler’s has.  Like a jazz instrumentalist who uses song structure for self-expression (as opposed to a singer who is obliged to express a certain fealty to melody), Brady uses the body as a laboratory to see just how far he can stretch his materials. What’s amazing is how much variety he has wrung from a single, repeated idea: forms that look like cleaved tree trunks wedded to roughed-up pool cues. 
"Empire", wood and gold foil, 51" x 33" x 7"
With improbably long limbs bent into anatomically impossible positions, these figures — which sit, stand, kneel and fold into fetal-like positions — articulate a geometry textbook’s worth of angles and shapes. They suggest, in their negative spaces, as many spatial possibilities as their positive elements do, and they mix delicacy and toughness. The surfaces are gouged and abraded, painted and sanded; yet some of the limbs of these pieces are delicate enough for air currents move them around the axis of the pins that hold them in place. 
There’s also a highly personal element. These contorted torsos and their sometimes shoe-gazing stances reference a period in Brady’s life when he was immobilized by a debilitating illness that struck twice, once in childhood and again when he was an adult. Memories of those events seem to have permanently lodged in his output, but their expression is curiously bifurcated: the forms are both sleek and awkward.
These obvious signs of corporeality are counterbalanced by a persistent inscrutability.  Since the 1989, when Brady quit ceramics for wood, writers have ascribed to his sculpture all manner of spiritual properties, owing to their incorporation of tribal motifs from all over the globe. Brady, himself, doesn’t claim deep knowledge of these sources; but like Picasso, Brady is acutely aware of their totemic power and he knows how to use it. As it happens, the centerpiece of this show — the three, 7-foot-tall figures of his Natomas series, pointedly reference Cycladic figures, a touchstone modernism. They greet you at the door like a phalanx of mute soldiers and introduce half a dozen similarly styled figures, along with an array of other works – including drawings, wall-mounted sculptures and wire-armature birds — that demonstrate the true breadth of Brady’s art .
"Untitled", mixed media
The birds – seven multi-media gems built of paper, wood, wire, string, straw and other studio-floor effluvia – testify further to the influence of early modernist practices.  Brady’s birds don’t stretch any boundaries, but they do carry his distinct imprint and stand with the best historical examples.  
Lately, Brady also seems to have brushed up against high minimalism. Stretched across an entire gallery wall are a series of wooden shields that seem to allude to tools and architectural forms. Painted white, slightly curved, and with small gaps between segments, they are all about shape and edge. They strive for iconic status, and to some extent they achieve it, but they feel like anomalies within Brady’s otherwise expressive oeuvre.
Both "Untitled", 2009, 15" x 14", mixed media
More in character are six multi-layered drawings that recycle in 2-D, visual ideas that have been more or less continuous themes across Brady’s career. Reconfigured in a graphic and sometimes cartoon-like form, and with edges perforated by stitching, they thrust the artist into an almost pop surrealist realm that feels fresh. The same holds for a wall-sized sculpture called Empire, which looks like an Afro comb made from walrus tusks whose gold-leaf trim gives it the aura of an artifact excavated from the tomb of a giant.
Taken together, the 32 pieces in this elegant show could easily stand as an abbreviated retrospective of Brady’s post-ceramic period.   They also highlight an aspect of his career that is seldom noted: the path not taken. Where his peers at UC Davis in the mid’60s were busy creating funk, Brady went on to pursue beauty in the form of outsized ceramic vessels.  The ancient primitivism embodied in that early work continues to stand as Brady’s trademark as his workevolves to encompass current trends.
Robert Brady, Sculptures and Works on Paper, through Nov. 28, 2009 at b. sakata garo.
"Cover" image: Flit IV, wood, 15" x 62" x 18"



5 Responses to “Robert Brady @ B. Sakata Garo”

  1. Engaging review of a great show. Thank you.

  2. Craig Smith says:

    Hey David,

    Thanks for this; arguably (probably) the best show in town right now.


    Craig Smith

  3. Robert Ray says:

    Enjoyed the article on Robert Brady. I really like the way your website is developing. You’re doing good work. Robert Ray


  1. […] mixed-media conjurer. (To read Roth’s review of Brady’s show at b. sakata garo, see – David M. Roth,; Photos: David M. Roth #gallery-1 { margin: auto; } […]

  2. […] mixed-media conjurer.  (Click here to see more images from the show. Click here to read my review of Brady’s show at b. sakata garo.) […]

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