Joe Bradley (B. 1975)
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Joe Bradley (B. 1975)

Tres Hombres

Joe Bradley (B. 1975)
Tres Hombres
signed, titled and dated 'JOE BRADLEY 2011 TRES HOMBRES' (on the stretcher); signed and dated again 'Joe Bradley 2011' (on the overlap)
oil, crayon, spraypaint and fabric collage on canvas
90 3/8 x 80 1/4 in. (229.5 x 203.8 cm.)
Painted in 2011.
Almine Rech Gallery, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Paris, Almine Rech Gallery, Joe Bradley: Duckling Fantasy, May-July 2011, pp. 25 and 73 (illustrated in color).
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The vibrant, high-keyed coloration and primitive oilstick renderings of New York-based artist Joe Bradley demonstrate the highly idiosyncratic, gestural style for which he quickly rose to fame as a talented, determined painter. The towering scale and enigmatic, abstract forms of Tres Hombres typifies Bradley’s work from this coveted period, in which he abandoned the multi-panel Minimalist work that previously consumed him, in favor of a more expressionistic style. Nearly every inch of Bradley’s oversized canvas is activated with the artist’s signature marks. The ghosted remains of abandoned forms seep through from the backside of the canvas, which read like a visual palimpsest as layer upon layer of accumulated marks vie for pictorial prominence. Boldly-colored abstract figures emerge like strange sentinels from Bradley’s universe, their primitive rendering recalling the work of Jean Dubuffet or Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bradley often begins painting his canvases on the floor, where they accumulate the dirt and debris of his studio, only to be tacked onto the wall and re-worked, or sewn together in fragments, like a puzzled-together map that provides the key to unlocking his captivating, process-oriented art. As fellow artist Ross Simonini has written, “Bradley’s become undeniably skilled at making the unskilled mark, and the results are transcendent” (R. Simonini, “Joe Bradley,” The Believer, November/December 2012, p. 66).

Typical to the paintings he produced at this time, in Tres Hombres Bradley worked directly upon raw cotton duck, which he prefers over the slick, gessoed surface of a commercially-primed canvas. The unstretched canvas also aided in his working method. While he might begin with the canvas spread on the ground, he could switch at any time to tacking it up on the wall, turn it over to paint the back, or throw it aside where it accumulated the schmutzy patina that he so desired. In Tres Hombres, Bradley’s working method of stitching canvas segments together into a larger, more cohesive whole can also be seen. The rich texture of the unprimed surface of Tres Hombres only adds to the raw, primal immediacy of Bradley’s abstract forms, which issue forth from the gritty world of its dirt-smeared background. In this way, Bradley upends the traditional notion of the holy, relic-like art object. Like his predecessor Jackson Pollock, Bradley dismantles the hierarchy of painting, taking it down from its podium and throwing it onto the floor, where his abstract style has free reign.

In Tres Hombres, as in another canvas from this period, Strut, from 2010 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Bradley’s boldly-colored oil stick renderings make use of a deliberately limited palette of simple, unadulterated hues within a vast expanse of unprimed canvas where every inch of the surface is activated by Bradley’s mark-making. An energetically-rubbed patch of yellow along the left edge hovers alongside an area of green, while a larger, fleshy section that dominates the center remains oddly figurative. Are these the “three hombres” to which the painting’s title alludes? Faint areas of ghosted color are visible from the reverse, activating the painted surface as different colors, marks and signs loop over and around each other, vying for attention and electrifying the surface. For this witty, process-driven artist, the title of each work often alludes to the content described therein. If read aloud phonetically, tres hombres might imply a cunning play on words; in the French: très sombre, which might poke fun at the existential angst espoused by the Abstract Expressionist generation.

Though Bradley’s paintings may appear hastily thrown together, the artist’s working process is actually much slower and more deliberate than it may seem at first glance. As he recently described: “There’s a lot of just sitting and looking and thinking. Then I’ll make a move every once and a while” (J. Bradley, quoted in Stephanie LaCava, “Studio Visit: Joe Bradley,” The Paris Review, 22 February 2011 accessed September 16 2015). He goes on: “I think that time moves slower in painting. And maybe that accounts for a lot of the anxiety around painting in the last 40 or 50 years. You have the 20th century wrapping up and everything is moving at this breakneck speed? And then, painting is still walking. It’s just a very human activity that takes time” (Joe Bradley, quoted in Laura Hoptman, “Joe Bradley,” Interview Magazine, 16 May 2013 accessed September 16, 2015). Indeed, even for the viewer, puzzling over Bradley’s intricate, abstracted world, the eye is forced to slowly wander around the canvas surface, its effect not unlike walking a labyrinth in its slow, deliberately meditative space.
Though Bradley’s paintings are primarily abstract, he’s long insisted on the figurative aspect of his work. Titles often indicate this concept, as is the case in Tres Hombres, and the longer one looks, the more certain recognizable forms begin to emerge. The artist recently discussed this phenomenon (in particular when looking at the paintings of Mark Rothko), which is described as “pareidolia,” the strange tendency of finding faces within inanimate objects. For Bradley, this special effect relates to the trancelike state that he often falls into while working on a particular work. He describes: “When I’m looking at a painting, my own painting or anyone’s. You enter into a kind of light trance. It’s strange. Your eyes glaze over a little. There’s a subtle shift in consciousness” (J. Bradley, quoted in R. Simonini, ibid., p. 66). In this way, Bradley’s paintings become a meditative vehicle, allowing the viewer to penetrate the inner-workings of the mind of the artist himself.

Above all else, Bradley’s paintings maintain a strict honesty and a truth-to-materials that feels refreshing in a media-saturated world. His work never pretends or imitates, but rather insists on the materials of their creation. His series of expressionistic paintings, such as Tres Hombres, insist only on the gesture of the artist and the application of paint on canvas. The canvas is always left unprimed, the palette deliberately reduced and spare, the brush-marks obvious and straight-forward.

Throughout the course of the postmodern era, painting has many times been declared dead, only to be resurrected again by a determined and hearty stock of new painters. Joe Bradley’s paintings, with their primitive symbolism and gritty process, vehemently proclaim the primacy of painting in the 21st Century. As Bradley himself proclaimed: “Painting is very satisfying but not exactly fun. I like the pace of it. I like that it’s an experience that resists media. You have to be there in front of it to experience it—that’s a rare item these days” (J. Bradley, quoted in Stephanie LaCava, ibid.).

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