I had been looking at Bob Brady’s art for nearly 20 years, but it wasn’t until I saw an exhibit last spring of more than 50 sculptures and drawings at Oats Park Art Center in Fallon, Nevada that I really understood, in a very literal sense, where his work was coming from. I knew a few things about the artist’s background: his hardscrabble upbringing in Reno, the illness that temporarily debilitated him as a teenager, and how he rejected Funk for a more lyrical mode of expression while earning his MFA degree at UC Davis. But it wasn’t until I drove through the high desert – to Fallon – that I really “got” how the local environment shaped his art.
At the show’s opening I saw a lot of working people — salt-of-the-Earth types in coveralls, boots, cowboy hats and checked shirts, staring hard at the imaginary hand tools that Brady had fabricated out of wood. They seemed to understand these objects intuitively, as if Brady’s well-crafted fictions (involving a spinning wheel, a sailor’s tool and other implements to which he attaches great spiritual significance) were, somehow, in their unnatural gallery setting, natural extensions of their everyday lives. I also saw in Brady’s sculpture and drawings echoes of everything I had witnessed en route to Fallon: snow-capped peaks, roadside mills and mines, sagebrush-swept farms, warnings about secret military installations, trailer parks, and all the neon signs that light up Nevada’s main drags, advertising everything from casinos to beauty parlors. I also sensed how the UFO lore that persists throughout this region helped spawn the cosmic elements that appear in many of his drawings and in more than a few of his 3-D works.
From the beginning of his 35-year career, Brady, 64, has had a knack for scavenging and creatively re-purposing objects, ideas and experiences. Whether scouring the desert outside Reno for remnants of broken tools and fragments of glass, reading about tribal art, traveling to foreign countries or sifting through the detritus of his Berkeley studio, Brady has always employed an archeologist’s instinct to help guide his explorations. He integrates his “finds” into sculptures and drawings that align with his ancient/tribal look — a singular and immediately identifiable aesthetic that has remained consistent over decades, yet pliable enough to absorb continuous embellishment and extrapolation. This mutability within a signature style has allowed him to keep his work fresh without having to periodically reinvent himself.
“The figure,” he states, “is the anchor, but I imagine many possibilities in regard to form. I am endlessly interested in the dynamics of line, mass, planes, distortion – setting up dialogues and battles within the piece.” What remains constant in Brady’s career is a relentless desire to expand the vocabulary of wood, his primary medium since 1989, the year he quit ceramic sculpture so that he could build large-scale forms more easily and more fluidly — without the stop-start cycles necessitated by clay and the defects that, through no fault of the artist, can occur in the firing process.
His best-known works, many of which were displayed here, are rough-hewn, long-limbed, figures that appear at life-size and in anatomically challenging poses. Sitting, standing, kneeling, and sometimes folded into fetal positions, both freestanding and wall-mounted, his sculptures articulate a geometry text’s worth of angles, forms and negative spaces. They mix delicateness and toughness in roughly equal measure, and employ surfaces that are gouged, abraded, painted and sanded. Some are so lithe that air currents move limbs around the axis of the pins that hold them in place; while others, like Lepus, in which the star-painted carapace of a wooden fish draped atop a pole, feels epic, like a wedding of sea and sky.
Among the most memorable, if not the most mysterious pieces in this show, are the three, seven-foot-tall figures of the Natomas series. They are so slight that they appear to be constructed of distressed pool cues; they stand in formation like a phalanx of mute soldiers, greeting visitors without exactly welcoming them. Like the works of Stephen de Staebler and Alberto Giacometti, two key influences, Brady’s attenuated, mostly androgynous sculptures project the artist’s feelings about mortality through slouching postures and various shoe-gazing contortions. However, within this realm there are huge variations. His works are frequently appended with wings, architectural forms and other objects and, as such, they allow the artist to use the figure as a palimpsest of sorts to express his feelings about religion, history, science fiction, biology other topics. In Confirmation, for example, where the shape of a gothic cathedral cloaks the head, the metaphor of religion on the brain is obvious; but you’d be hard-pressed to wrest a more specific meaning out of it. Like the Cycladic figures that they recall, Brady’s forms, with their slit eyes, tiny heads and faces devoid of expression, are inscrutable — they mask all feeling and emotion; yet their brooding countenances point to momentous events that befell the artist.
At age 16 (and again when he was 32), he was immobilized by a form of arthritis that put him in the hospital during his senior year of high school. It was a period of enforced contemplation, where, as Brady recalls it, “I was trapped in a place where I had a lot of time to think.” Observers have speculated that the experience influenced the emaciated shape and the inward-looking character that is the reoccurring motif of his oeuvre. Brady remains wary of such cause-and-effect equations, but agrees that the figures speak “of my own bodily experience and image of myself from a young age. I can identify with being skinny – really skinny, and there was an aloneness that I felt.”
The unforeseen upside to his illness was being able to substitute a crafts class for an algebra course he couldn’t complete in time for graduation. “I was given an assignment to make a slab built ‘pitcher’ with no instruction or demonstration; I was only handed a bag of clay and a rolling pin. Fifty minutes later I had it done and was absolutely in love with clay and the making process. It spoke to me deeply…I had ability and a good design sense. With that piece and others to follow I was keenly aware that I owned every part of it…It was mine like nothing had ever been, and it marked the first time I was really good at something.”
In point of fact, Brady had already proven himself to be adept at a lot of things, particularly earning money. “The savings, he recalls, “began in kindergarten” with lawn mowing, paper routes and other kid jobs, which were then followed by gardening, painting, furniture moving, grocery checking and restaurant work – all of this before he finished high school. While his peers were begging their parents to buy things like record players, motorcycles and cars, Brady was paying for them in cash.
Much later, at Davis, Brady continued to forge his own path. During the mid-1970s when he was earning his MFA, Robert Arneson, the king of California Funk, reigned supreme, shaping a group of artists whose influence persists. Brady never quite fit in. “Everything I did harkened to another time, place or layer of history,” he recalls. “I was looking at Eva Hesse, Sol Lewitt and Arte Povera.” In the studio, he found himself torn between figuration and abstraction, and after graduating he took a camping trip to Pyramid Lake in Nevada. Out of that trip came a series of composite drawings that set him on his current path, first in clay, then later in wood. “I seemed to find a way to express the figure in a way that had eluded me until then. Death, isolation, emptiness, pared down and often attenuated, were the characteristics. They were the characteristics I liked in the work of primitive cultures and in the art of the untrained, Art Brut.”
Brady, however, claims no intimate knowledge of the ancient and tribal forms that seem to influence his output; nor does he agree with those who see otherworldly aspects in his work. What he does acknowledge is that his work is becoming increasingly abstract. A singular example is Area 51.
It’s an outsized piece named for the U.S. Air Force base in southern Nevada, long been rumored to be harboring the remains of space aliens and their starships. With its rocket-shaped, nose-cone of a head set on a platform held aloft by four skinny legs, and with its oval-shaped feet adorned with painted-on polka-dot eyes, Area 51 gives palpable form to the rumors. (It also brings to mind the illustration for the paperback edition of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” that so frightened me as a kid.)
Brady’s drawings are equally revelatory. Where his 3-D works have a formal weight and a finished presence, his drawings, though heavily worked, feel looser and more spontaneous – like direct pipelines to the artist’s subconscious. From them, we can glean possible contexts for his solitary figures. Rarely seen, they show him to be a masterful draftsman and a collagist of a high order. In these small-scale works, which include hand stitching, Brady creates a colorful, graphic, universe populated by many of the same forms found in his sculptures: tribal masks, glyphs and extraterrestrials – all which, in the drawings, appear against starry desert skies.
“I love signs, glyphs and symbols for their simplicity abstractness and mystery. Connecting points in space or architecture has always sparked my interest. Drawing constellations is a form of connecting points or dots. I like the shapes and spatial implications that can occur.” In one untitled drawing, Brady achieved this by tossing handfuls of rice onto a sheet of paper, spray painting it black and then removing the grains to reveal the negative spaces. The marks that remain closely mimic a clear night sky; their random spacing feels correct, as if the artist had mapped and drawn to scale the distance separating these points of light.
Feeding off such experiments, Brady continues to push his three-dimensional works deeper into pure abstraction. In Kinderslam, a wall-mounted array of oval-shaped wooden discs, each element is painted with two black dots that read like dice “eyes”. Taken as a whole, the piece alludes to cellular activity in a loopy, cartoonish manner, like something Fred Flintstone might have created had he been a biologically minded sculptor of wood rather than a brontosaurus crane operator.
“I don’t often develop an idea linearly,” says Brady. “Instead, I move in a circle, picking up and discarding and eventually retracing the path of seeing and finding anew. I am not interested in squeezing all I can from an idea. I like variety and change. I will knowingly and unknowingly borrow from any source, even my own history which informs even what may seem new.” His practice, he maintains, is omnivorous: “I hover, glance and fly by not wanting to know or see too much. I pluck the savory and put it in my bag, sometimes remembering and sometimes forgetting.”
The result is that Brady’s art, through all its transmogrifications, remains firmly tied to the iconography he invented; yet at the same time, it is as extensible and as infinite in its potential as the desert itself.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Robert Brady: New Work @ Braunstein/Quay Gallery, December 16 to Jan. 22, 2011.
Reception: Saturday, December 18, 3:00 – 5:00 pm
Read the Robert Brady interview.
Photos: David M. Roth except where noted.