The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2022

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APRIL 2022 Issue

Joe Bradley: Bhoga Marga

Joe Bradley, <em>Jubilee</em>, 2022. Oil on canvas, 108 x 144 inches. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.
Joe Bradley, Jubilee, 2022. Oil on canvas, 108 x 144 inches. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.

On View
Petzel Gallery
March 3 – April 30, 2022
New York

Joe Bradley has been traveling the pleasure path. Questions about destinations and departures are unimportant; what counts are the artist’s peregrinations, his movements over time and the colossal impact of that experience, recorded with oil on canvas. A Joe Bradley painting is many things, but it is not for the dainty of heart. When you walk amongst his canvases you walk through a kind of dream jungle where the meaty atmosphere is mottled and streaked with sinuous filaments that may or may not cohere into something you think you recognize. It’s true that Joe Bradley treads on his paintings. The marks of his sandals are right there for those who look.

This is the painter’s first show with Petzel and it includes a set of fifteen drawings that accompany eleven new paintings. Everything is dated 2022 and so it all collects in the viewer’s mind as a cohesive whole created in a singular passage of time. Then one wonders what the drawings reveal about the paintings? They look nothing like one another. The drawings are resolutely representational: we see a disgruntled conehead on the phone; an unhappy driver riding with a shaggy dog and a bird-flipping passenger; a gigantic penis squirting into a tiny toilet; there’s a startled looking fellow sporting a tremendous mustache. The juvenile sense of humor that pervades the drawings is absent in the paintings, but there’s a quality of line that connects them and makes them feel like neighboring states in the country that is Joe Bradley.

The thing is this: Joe Bradley’s lines brook no hesitation. Scratchy and jumpy though they may appear, they are resolute time after time. The drawings leave that resolution bare, which is great because the paintings constantly test it. Vyakti is a brilliant painting to witness these experimental procedures. The accumulation of layers on the painting’s surface evidence a great many decisions made over an extended period of time, the type of decision that can only be made in the moment—a response. The line drawings don’t carry any of this responsive energy. Their images all have the quality of being foreseen, whereas the paintings register as discoveries.

Joe Bradley, <em>Music</em>, 2022. Oil on canvas, 83 1/4 x 112 1/2 inches. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.
Joe Bradley, Music, 2022. Oil on canvas, 83 1/4 x 112 1/2 inches. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.

I like to get very close to Joe Bradley paintings, close enough to make a gallery attendant nervous. There is a thrill to being so near something that feels so unruly, body to body with an object that’s rippling with hot force. For me, the standout here is Music. And it was in the nearness that I seized upon something significant, that a Joe Bradley painting can channel the vigor of a glacier becoming a great lake. To start, it was a consequence of conditions that certain glaciers stopped and transformed where they did. Their positioning is no more arbitrary than one of Joe Bradley’s splotches, or a patch where the paint has hardened and chipped off to reveal whatever lies beneath. The violence of grinding and churning, the clear sense of action taking place below the surface—both of these glacial characteristics are present in Music. What’s astounding is that Joe Bradley can scale this natural energy down to something that can hang on a wall.

If you extend this metaphor, you can make beaches out of the unpainted edges on pretty much all of Joe Bradley’s paintings. When most of the canvas is so heavily worked, a stretch that goes untouched becomes prominent. And it’s important that these moments happen at the edges because they contain the wild compositions. The effect would be quite different if Joe Bradley went edge-to-edge with the accumulations of paint. It may well yoke his boat too near the heavy freighters of art history. By being left alone, the unpainted sections make the paintings feel more complete.

Joe Bradley, Untitled, 2022. Graphite on paper, 7 1/2 x 5 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.
Joe Bradley, Untitled, 2022. Graphite on paper, 7 1/2 x 5 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.

What’s interesting is the moment when the idea of “complete” and the feeling of it move in different directions. I noticed the rift as I stood before the namesake of the show, Bhoga Marga—Sanskrit words for that translate roughly into “pleasure” and “way to enlightenment.” Bhoga Marga is a beautiful painting, perhaps a masterpiece. Its flowing lines and swashbuckling brushwork convey the sureness of one who moves without heed of error, one for whom risk and resolve are principal concerns of making art. Like the others, the painting is many-layered. What is determined at one point is undone by a later choice; everything is subject to change. In this sense, the idea of completion is a dead-end thought. It mistakes the painting for the process and misunderstands the artwork’s relationship with time. The process is complete, but because the painting is so good its meaning and the feelings it stimulates will continue shifting, expanding and piling up for as long as it has viewers.

I stayed with the Joe Bradley paintings until I felt exhausted, until my observational capacities went slack and all I could see was what I had already seen. This is a perverse plateau to reach, when all that was new has become familiar. Right about then I picked up Joe Bradley’s press release and chortled at the brevity and wackiness of it. The entire thing is a quoted paragraph by Sri Robert Adams that opens by aligning the mind of a person with a trash receptacle. For Adams, fullness is the quality those two things share. The quoted text turns out to be built on contradiction and overlap (like a Joe Bradley painting) concluding with the triumphant declaration: “Nothing Actually Exists.” But the words of Adams dissolved into a different mantra as I carried them in my mind on one final stroll past the paintings. So many different marks, so many different layers of intent; so much has been delivered: “Nothing is better, nothing is best.”


Charles Schultz

Charles M. Schultz is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2022

All Issues