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Robert Brady @ Stremmel

"Bluff", wood, mixed media, 60 x 47 x 11"

Right when you think you’ve got Bob Brady pegged, he stops you in your tracks with unexpected inventions.  His are not the sort some artists toss out to appease a fickle market or to convince themselves they’re still capable of reinvention.  Brady’s incremental extrapolations spring from ideas that he has been working with for over 35 years.

Whether scouring the desert outside Reno for remnants of broken tools and fragments of glass, reading about tribal art, traveling, or sifting the detritus of his Berkeley studio, Brady has always employed something akin to an archeologist’s instinct to help guide his explorations. He integrates his “finds” into sculptures and drawings that align with the Cycladic and tribal aesthetic that have remained consistent, yet pliable enough to absorb continuous embellishment.  

His best-known works are brooding long-limbed figures whose lithe bodies are bent into anatomically challenging poses, their slit-eyed faces conveying a feeling of timelessness. Seven of them are on view here, along with 37 other works, including drawings, sculptures of birds, giant totems and biomorphic forms, as well as a recent series of geometric abstractions done in clay – his primary medium before he switched to wood in 1989. The show, which fills the the elegant expanse of Reno’s Stremmel Gallery, feels like a museum survey of the artist’s recent past. 
 
Center: "Tumble #2", wood, paint, 108 x 38 x 14"
Two things immediately jump out. First, no matter how far he strays, Brady continues to use the figure as a touchstone, returning to it over and over to ground his forays into uncharted territory. Second, unlike many mature artists who simplify as they grow older Brady, at 65, appears headed in the opposite direction. Where in the past his art recalled the stripped-to-the-bone sculpture of Alberto Giacometti and Stephen de Staebler, two early influences, it continues to take on new layers of complexity. The two largest pieces in the show, both from the Tumblers series, demonstrate. Each is a giant human pyramid composed of figures stacked one upon the other — standing, kneeling and crouching. The idea seems straightforward until you circumnavigate the conjoined objects which, in total, measure nine feet tall. It’s only then that you are confronted with a maze of possible entry points: triangles of positive and negative space built from stick figures – the same pale, emaciated, rough-hewn, forms the artist has been working with for decades.  They’re prime examples of how Brady transforms something old into something new.
 
“I don’t often develop an idea linearly,” Brady told me. “Instead, I move in a circle, picking up, 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 to inform what may seem new.” 
 
Such self-sampling has long been the foundation of Brady’s art.  Bluff, a wall-mounted piece that looks like an Op artist’s rendition of a heraldic symbol, first appeared several years ago. It reappears here appended with short, cilia-like tendrils of string that transform the object into something almost organic. In the Pinion series, Brady applies the same idea to shield-shaped forms, imbuing them with a hirsute, primordial quality that carries over into the blossom-shaped wood objects Brady calls Fiori, the Italian word for flower.  With their dangling threads, you can easily imagine them as aquatic plants swaying in the tide. 
 
“Bird #15”, wood, mixed media, 62 x 41 x 17”; "Troop", mixed media, wood, 43 x 14 x 11"
 
Birds, a longstanding subject, have also undergone changes.  Unlike his figures, which are formal exercises in the parsing of space — designed to evoke the fragility of corporeal experience — Brady’s avian creations began as whimsical constructions of studio detritus: nails, saw blades, straw, wood scraps bits of metal and the like.  Many of the 11 on view retain that informal quality. (Some, in fact, look more like projectile-shaped locusts than birds.) But again, a subtle shift has occurred, and it runs in opposite directions: abstraction vs. representation. In Troop, a wall-mounted piece, “heads” stack up like tribal totems with strings stretched taut across "faces", alluding to the musical capabilities of birds. Elsewhere, borrowing from the joinery he developed to depict contorted human bodies, Brady portrays herons, storks and egrets doing what they do naturally, when they twist their necks into “impossible” positions to forage for food.   These acute observations of animal behavior underscore Brady’s ability to seamlessly fuse representation and abstraction in ways that keep him close to his Art Brut and Arte Povera roots. 
 
“Area 51, #4”, mixed media on paper, 24 x 24 inches
The outliers in his oeuvre – the collage-drawings and the ceramic sculptures — are equally engaging.   The Area 51 series — named for the secret military installation in Southern Nevada long rumored to harbor the remains of space aliens — provides what feels like a pipeline into the artist’s unconscious, as well as a possible context for his existentially wracked figures. Measuring two feet square, these cartoonish collages are populated with radio towers, extraterrestrials, masks, glyphs, lone figures and starry skies – things Brady might well have witnessed (or imagined) while scouring the desert as a kid or seen more recently on his frequent motorcycle forays into the Nevada wilderness.   Presciently the debut of the series, which remained untitled until recently, closely preceded the publication of a book on that very subject, which exhaustively documented U.S. government secrets while adding fuel to the flames of conspiracy theorists. If Brady were to direct a play about his life, these drawings could easily form the backdrop.
 
"Language #2", ceramic, 21 x 18 x 5"
As for the ceramic wall pieces – they appear to have no obvious connection to Brady’s history that I am aware of. The idea, as expressed by the titles, which are numbered sequentially beginning with the word “Language”, is to create linguistic associations from a limited character set formed by interleaved girder-like shapes.   While having little to do with Brady’s past, they have solid links to the architectonic forms painted by Franz Kline and to the language-inflected paintings of Bradley Walker Tomlin. 
 
If there’s a through-line in all of this it’s Brady’s abiding interest in space. “The figure,” he says, “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 dialogs and battles within the piece.”   Short of a full-on career survey, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better, more representative exhibition of those "dialogs" and "battles" than the 44 works on view here.  
 
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Robert Brady: “Bearings Claimed” @ Stremmel Gallery through April 7, 2012.
 

  

3 Responses to “Robert Brady @ Stremmel”

  1. This is very interesting work. Brady’s level of engagement with his process and engagement with his subject matter make for intriguing work.

  2. Joy Broom says:

    Wonderful article! Well thought, well written and observed. Brady has always been surprising, and one of the best artists I know. The work must be astonishing in that beautiful Stremmel space. (Sorry to have had to miss the opening; I’m still putting in time as Artist in Res. at deYoung) Kudos, David. Kudos, Bob.

    Joy

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  1. […] Whether scouring the desert outside Reno for remnants of broken tools and fragments of glass, reading about tribal art, traveling, or sifting the detritus of his Berkeley studio, Brady has always employed something akin to an archeologist’s instinct to help guide his explorations. He integrates his “finds” into sculptures and drawings that align with the Cycladic and tribal aesthetic that have remained consistent, yet pliable enough to absorb continuous embellishment.  To read more by SQUARESCYLINDER’S David Roth, click here. […]


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