Art In Conversation
JOE BRADLEY with Phong Bui
On the occasion of the painter’s two simultaneous exhibits, Mouth and Foot Painting at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (January 8 – February 19, 2011) and Human Form at CANADA (January 13 – February 21, 2011), Joe Bradley took a break from his Brooklyn studio to visit Rail publisher Phong Bui at Art International Radio to talk about his life and work.
Joe Bradley: It’s fun talking into a microphone. I feel like I’m on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Phong Bui (Rail): It’s Off the Rail Hour, and welcome. Joe, when I was looking at the Schmagoo Paintings at CANADA in 2008, even though one could detect subtle references to the work of Jean Dubuffet, Philip Guston, and R. Crumb, as well as children’s art, and images, sign, symbols deriving from pop culture, and so on, I actually thought of Bill Traylor (the self-taught artist from Alabama) and Blind Lemon Jefferson (the father of Texas Blues), especially one of his most popular songs, entitled “Matchbox Blues.” I don’t know how to articulate the association between the two and my reading of your work, but I felt the believability in the economy of lines and the economy of surface was very present. I mean, while the lines are reduced and simple, they are in fact very physical, and while the surfaces look spare, they have just enough of an accumulated history of wrinkles, dust, and undetectable stains to create their own patinas. Just as in the song, “I’m settin’ here wonderin’ would a matchbox hold my clothes / I ain’t got so many matches but I got so far to go,” it’s the matchbox being the conscious metaphor to strip down to the bare essentials, leaving behind things that may have defined your place under previous conditions.
Bradley: That’s an interesting observation. Actually, the show following Schmagoo Paintings had a similar approach and sentiment. The title for the show, Like a Turkey Thru Corn, was taken from Lightnin’ Hopkins’s song, “Long Gone Like a Turkey Through Corn.” So yeah, it’s funny that a similar connection would pop into your head. I was kind of going deep with old blues music at the time. I was very interested in the tenor of that stuff, which seems tragic and lighthearted and funny all at once. You’re kind of just laughing to keep from crying.
Rail: Like the beginning of Muddy Waters’s song “Walking Blues”: “Woke up this morning, lookin’ round for my shoes, / You know bout that babe, had them old walkin’ blues.” You definitely know the fellow is experiencing a serious hangover.
Bradley: Right, yeah.
Rail: This brings me to my next question: You were the lead singer of the band Cheeseburger, formed in 2000, the year after you graduated from RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) as an undergraduate. Could you tell us briefly how the band came together?
Bradley: I started Cheeseburger with a couple of friends from RISD, Christy Karacas and Luke Crotty. We were drinking buddies and we liked the same kind of music (AC/DC, The Stooges, Black Flag) that sort of thing, and we also had kind of a similar sense of humor. We were all into Rodney Dangerfield and Andy Kaufman and The Three Stooges. The other Stooges. [Laughs.] And there was a really great music scene in Providence at the time. Fort Thunder was up and running, so there were all these great live shows happening, all this really far out noise stuff: Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, Fat Day. So I guess there was a lot of inspirational material.
Rail: Were you at all thinking of the Talking Heads and how they all met at RISD and later emerged to prominence in New York City in the late ’70s?
Bradley: No. I think it was a little more artless than that. [Laughs.] We had never made any attempt to really gussy it up in that way and present it as anything more than a laugh or whatever.
Rail: So you guys all were playing together already while you were in school.
Bradley: Yeah. We were all involved in this other band called Barkley’s Barnyard Critters, which was sort of a side project for Brian Gibson, who is the bass player for Lightning Bolt. That was a lot of fun. Just a drunken mess. A bunch of schmucks dressed up as animals.
Rail: You mentioned The Stooges as a main influence.
Bradley: The Three Stooges or Iggy and the Stooges?
Rail: Maybe both.
Bradley: Equally important.
Rail: The energy of the band also reminds me of Captain Beefheart.
Bradley: I love Beefheart. And he was a great painter, too.
Rail: Yeah, the album Ice Cream for Crow came out in the early ’80s and it was a huge deal for me because it pointed out the rather complex relationship between him and on one hand, Frank Zappa, and on the other, Ry Cooder. With Zappa, the sound tends to lean towards the avant-garde and experimental side; it comes closer to the Delta Blues side.
Bradley: You think Zappa is more avant-garde than Cooder? [Laughs.]
Rail: For sure.
Bradley: But then Beefheart always seemed much more out there than Zappa.
Rail: No question.
Bradley: It’s a Beatles/Stones scenario. You can always tell who your friends are by whether they go Zappa or Beefheart. I just saw Dan Graham and Harmony Korine talking about comedy at the Swiss Institute like a week ago and Dan Graham had some funny things to say about Zappa. He thought Zappa was not funny, and a moralist. [Laughs.] I tend to agree. And I asked him about Beefheart and he just didn’t seem to be aware of Beefheart at all.
Rail: Oh really?
Bradley: Or maybe he was. He’s an interesting character.
Rail: The thing with Beefheart is that he became a painter after he quit the band—and music entirely—in 1982. And with your case, you were doing both, playing music and making paintings, at the same time. How did you maintain or negotiate the two equally devoted activities?
Bradley: It could be a hassle, really. Or it became a hassle because both began to demand more and more of my time, but it was interesting at the same time because it was two completely different disciplines. It was sort of a carry over situation from school where you would paint during the day and music was something you did at night. You mentioned the Talking Heads and Beefheart. With those guys there is a seamless relationship between the art and the music. It was never like that for me. I never wanted to present Cheeseburger as Art, you know? Something about the culture surrounding Art—it tends to suck the fun out of things.
Rail: You sound like Robert Graves, the author of I, Claudius, who said of his successful historical novels in relationship to his much lesser known poetry, “I breed my dogs in order to sell them to feed my cats.” [Laughter.]
In any case, how did the song “Coming Home” become the theme song for that animated television series Superjail?
Bradley: Well, Christy Karacas, the guitarist for Cheeseburger, is a multitalented guy and that’s his show. Yeah, he just called me up and said let’s write a theme song. He wanted to get “Rubber Bullets” by the band 10 cc and then figured out they were going to have to pay $75,000 every time they aired the show or something like that, so he said why don’t we rip off that song. That was what we did. I basically wrote the song while I was taking a walk on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Rail: How about the other song, “Cocaine,” which is on Radio Broker station in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV?
Bradley: I don’t know. It was strange because it’s just such a kind of hangdog band and for some reason we were always getting these weird little things like that. I think it might have something to do with Christy’s connection to that world of—
Rail: Prolonged adolescence?
Bradley: [Laughs.] Yeah, video games, pop culture, all that kind of stuff. I think maybe he knows some people in that kind of scene.
Rail: It’s very melodic, that song. [Laughs.]
Bradley: You have to realize, I was probably, like, 23 when I wrote that. [Laughter.]
Rail: Can we talk now about your early history? Where in southern Maine did you grow up?
Bradley: I grew up in a town named Kittery, which is the southern point of Maine, right on the New Hampshire border. Yeah, it’s kind of a quaint town, which gets very busy during the summertime and then it’s kind of dead during the winter.
Rail: Did art come before music or the other way around? Or were they simultaneous?
Bradley: Probably simultaneous. My first exposure to art was through comic books when I was really young, like 8 or 9 years old. I began looking at Marvel and DC Comics stuff when I was a kid, and when I was in high school I got turned onto R. Crumb and his contemporaries. I really love all those San Francisco guys. Rory Hayes, S. Clay Wilson. Brilliant stuff. I also remember getting a couple issues of RAW when I was in high school and just poring over them. I had the issue with selections from Gary Panter’s sketchbook.
Rail: In an interview between you and Dike Blair for BOMB magazine (Summer 2009), you were describing what appeared to be a landscape painting that combined over-the-top illuminist revisions of Thomas Kinkade and Marsden Hartley, as well as Joseph Yoakum. Were these the paintings you were doing while you were a student at RISD or after when you left school?
Bradley: I was making those paintings at RISD. I remember the first couple years; I was just sort of devouring art history because I didn’t know that much about it, which was really exciting. I discovered the Hairy Who, who I thought were amazing artists. Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Art Green, and Roger Brown. That work clicked with all the comic stuff that I had been looking into. And late Guston was a big deal for me. So for a while I was trying to paint like that, and sort of emulating that kind of stuff. But at a certain point I got frustrated because I thought I would be chasing these guys around forever. So I had the idea that maybe I should try and emulate something that I had no interest in, really, or no sort of connection to. I chose landscape painting for no particular reason. I guess I didn’t like it at the time. But of course through painting these things and looking at all these landscape paintings, I developed a real love for the tradition. I really love Marsden Hartley, and also Alfred Pinkham Ryder.
Rail: Whom Hartley adored and admired. In fact, he made a beautiful portrait of Ryder with the long beard (1938).
Bradley: Exactly, their paintings are still among my favorite.
Rail: So while you were checking out the Hairy Who contingent, did you also look at Ray Yoshida’s comic-image collages and his weirdly stylized figurative paintings? The reason I’m asking is because the influence of folk and outsider art is as evident as his modernist sophistication.
Bradley: I’m not as familiar with his stuff, to be honest, except that I had seen reproductions of his paintings and read a little bit about him. I know that he had taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and was regarded as an important mentor of the Imagist group.
Rail: Were there specific professors who were supportive of what you were doing while you were at RISD? Dennis Congdon or Holly Hughes? I’m sure Dike was there when you were a student, right?
Bradley: I don’t think I had Dike until my senior year. But we hit it off. We have remained friends and he’s still very supportive of what I do. Congdon I didn’t really have too much contact with. Holly Hughes I had and I liked her a lot. I remember she provided one of my favorite art school moments, where I had painted this painting of a tropical sunset with little palm trees, and so on. And she looked at it and told me that the painting had “no redeeming qualities.” [Laughs.] I remember it being a liberating moment, because even though it was a horrible little painting, I knew that it was really good. I felt confident that it was okay even though I had failed the crit.
Rail: What was the palette? Bright or muted colors?
Bradley: Well, I was painting off a postcard. In fact, none of them were painted from life; they were all painted from souvenir postcards. I would try to match the palette of the postcard, but usually that involved mucking it up a little bit. Which means add a little ochre to everything? [Laughs.] Antique it.
Rail: Give it a little patina.
Bradley: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Rail: Did you continue to make those landscape paintings even after you left school?
Bradley: Well, after I graduated from RISD I hung around Providence for a year. I didn’t have it together enough to move to New York. Then I came to the city in 2000 and continued to make those landscape paintings for another year. I remember having Kenny Schachter over and he saw the landscape paintings and liked them. Then he called me about a year later and said he wanted to come by again, and when he came over the paintings were all completely abstract. This all had happened within the course of a year. I suppose that even though I enjoyed making landscape paintings, I had never really felt exactly right about them. I was becoming more and more preoccupied with the edge of the painting, and how it functioned as an object. The “front” of the painting, where all the action usually happens, seemed not so interesting to me.
Rail: Your work has gained a lot of critical attention. There were both positive and negative responses at the 2008 Whitney Biennial to your group of paintings that were made of modular structures stretched with vinyl. Many suggested that they essentially evoked a feeling of a human body, but I actually prefer to see them as architectural motifs, and the fact that the bottom edge was installed right on top of the floor made them even more sculptural. In any case, could you describe the impulse behind those paintings and talk about how long you maintained that body of work?
Bradley: It lasted probably about two years. It began with the Kurgan Waves show at CANADA in 2006, and then followed by those at the Whitney in 2008. Actually, I stopped making those paintings right after that.
Rail: Was there a reason why you used vinyl instead of canvas?
Bradley: Because I could never really get the right surface on canvas. [Laughter.] And I think I wanted a surface that has no brush stroke. Yeah, I really wanted them to kind of read as objects; I didn’t want whoever was looking at it to be distracted by the hand in there. So, yeah.
Rail: In some odd way, they reminded me of an abstract version of Richard Lindner.
Bradley: I like Richard Lindner.
Rail: Who painted rigid robot-like figures wearing what looks like vinyl leather clothing.
Bradley: This sort of weird eroticism, S-and-M.
Rail: Definitely. And yours is like a formal, abstract version of it. It’s really spooky. [Laughter.]
Bradley: I own a beautiful book of his work.
Rail: Probably the monograph with the enthusiastic writing by Hilton Kramer.
Bradley: I think so.
Rail: When did you meet Chris Martin, and how did your and his two-person show at Mitchell-Inness and Nash last year (2010) come about?
Bradley: I first saw his show at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg in 2005. Up to that point I was completely kind of unaware of his work, and I just thought it was a really charming show and I really liked his paintings. And then, I was very impressed by his show at Mitchell-Innes and Nash three years later (2008). Then I think I met him at CANADA at some point. We did studio visits and found out that we had a lot in common. And, I don’t know, Chris is a fascinating guy, and I also interviewed Chris for the Journal magazine last year, and so we’d had this rapport, which at some point Jay Gorney thought that it would be interesting to flesh it out and make it into a show.
Rail: That makes great sense. You and Chris have roots in landscape painting. When I first met Chris in the mid-’90s, he was obsessed with Ryder, Hartley, Forrest Bess, Alfred Jensen, and Bill Jensen. You also both have a strong investment in children’s art, and the love for works made by the self-taught, the intuitive, the unschooled.
Bradley: Yeah, we both have a real shared interest in some of these marginalized characters in 20th century art.
Rail: Onto a more technical question: When did you discover the beauty of the unprimed, un-sized, cheap cotton duck canvas? [Laughter.]
Bradley: The Schmagoo show was the first time I drew on unprimed canvas, which was an effort to keep things as simple as possible on the one hand, and also to keep the paintings close to drawing on the other hand. Unprimed canvas mimics paper in a way; to me it looks like newsprint. With gessoed or prepared canvas, the white surface feels like artificial light. I just don’t like the look of that white peeking through.
Rail: Were you thinking at all of Pollock’s drip paintings? Or the Color Field folks, who were able to achieve the desirable degree of transparency by pouring thin layers of colors directly on unprimed canvas?
Bradley: I wasn’t really thinking of them so much, though I’ve seen some of Frankenthaler’s paintings in the past couple years that have really knocked me out. And I can see that there’s a connection. And Pollock, of course, I’ve been fascinated with, for a long time.
Rail: I only think of it because in your case, it’s the minimal use of mark making that points out the less often seen raw cotton duck as a legitimate, sensual surface.
Bradley: Yeah, when you have a primed surface, the paint kind of skates across the surface, and the brush stroke, the mark, kind of stands up, in a way. But when you’re working on unprimed canvas, it’s sort of—you’re almost etching into the surface.
Rail: Is that why you use grease pencil, instead of charcoal or other mediums?
Bradley: Yeah, I experimented with charcoal and it was too dusty. I’d also tried with Conté crayon, but it didn’t feel right either. There’s something about the grease pencil in that you could make a distinct mark.
Rail: And the marks are drawn not impulsively.
Bradley: Not at all. They all were pretty slow-moving and deliberately made things. Partially because I knew I had one shot to do it, so if it were, you know, if I fucked it up I’d just have to throw it away. [Laughter.] Because there was no erasure or anything like that.
Rail: Joe, in reference to the way you regard your titles as important components to each of your paintings, I’m reminded of the way Gorky gave titles to his paintings. For instance, there’s one beautiful one, now included in the Ab Ex show at MoMA that Ann Temkin curated, “Diary of Seducer,” which was taken from Kierkegaard’s book, Either/Or, Volume I. In other words, is “Albemuth” one of the titles taken from the Philip K. Dick novel Radio Free Albemuth?
Bradley: Yeah, it is. Also the motif of the Christ fish inside the mouth of a larger fish was lifted from Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. I have an edited copy of the Exegesis, with some of Dick’s sketches reproduced, and that was one that kind of stuck with me. I’ve made three or four paintings using that motif.
Rail: Right, the first one was included in the Schmagoo painting show, which was very minimal and spare. And it’s true that you can read the inner image of the fish but when it became painting, it looks, I would say, more like an inner opening of the mouth.
Bradley: Yeah, it’s a little less readable now, I guess.
Rail: It’s become a much more elaborate painting. When and how did the shifting of the scale take place? I mean “Pigpen (#2)” measures 97 by 72 inches, which is relatively small compared to “Strut,” (110 by 130 inches) and “Big Boy,” (130 by 120 inches). Were they painted with Gavin’s space in mind? Or they came to those scales naturally?
Bradley: Well, I don’t know. The modular pieces always read as rather large to me, but you’re right, these are the biggest paintings that I’ve made to date. I don’t know. I thought they needed that scale and I was aware of what I was going up against with the space. You mentioned “Pigpen,” and then “All Duck,” and “Mouth and Foot (Cock and Balls).” Those ones aren’t so big. As for “Big Boy” and “Strut,” it’s fun to paint at that scale. It’s a challenge.
Rail: One thing that is very pleasurable for me, while looking at those new paintings, is the field surrounding the image is much more active. They have a certain sense of accumulative palimpsests, which probably require painting from behind the canvas surface to bleed through, in order to accommodate the painted image that more or less monopolizes the center of the canvas.
Bradley: That’s the way that I worked on them. Most of the painting is done with the canvas on the floor. I begin painting, and then at a certain point flip it over and see what the other side looked like. With this thin canvas the oil paint bled through, and sometimes the bleed-through would suggest something. It’s a satisfying way of making a painting. You feel like really getting inside the thing. And working on a painting while it’s laying flat, you become less aware of how it will work compositionally. You don’t get hung up on how the upper left hand corner looks, you know?
Rail: Well, it’s an interesting spatial orientation for sure, and it’s interesting in that the image tends to be fluctuating off the center, right somewhere in the middle, and in the same way that de Kooning was so preoccupied with making the image of the woman, as he told David Sylvester: “I put it [the image] in the center of the canvas because there was no reason to put it a bit on the side.” But it didn’t come as premeditated; it emerged out of an arduous process of making or placing the image over and over again. Even one tiny inch to the left, or three-quarters of an inch the right; it could have changed somewhat how we perceived the image.
Bradley: I think a central image just creates more of an iconic reading.
Rail: True. Since they include no environment, you only see the image. Can you talk a little bit about the silkscreen paintings at CANADA, which basically consist of black silhouettes against a white ground? Apart from the similar frontality of the image, they can be seen also as the opposite representation of the human figure as those paintings at Gavin Brown. Other than that were there other intentions for making such differences between the two bodies of work?
Bradley: Not really. I thought it would be fun. Keep things confusing. I found the figures in the Human Form paintings at CANADA in an instructional book on breakdancing.
Rail: Are you saying that break dancing hasn’t come far since Egyptian dance?
Bradley: How did they dance in ancient Egypt? I don’t know. That’s what I liked about the figures in Human Form, they seemed to evoke the glory of Egypt while remaining completely ridiculous.
Rail: Now that you have quit the band, do you think that all the excessive energy from your musical side has become more visible in the current paintings? They’re no longer minimal like they once were.
Bradley: Hmm, it’s possible. I guess it’s gotta end up somewhere. Or maybe it’s just huffing too much paint thinner.