John Bradford’s exhibition of nine paintings, done in the 1990’s – presents us with a conundrum. Clearly these are paintings you must see, but I cannot recommend that you see then now. They make their subjects immediately accessible even as the road to this visual enlightenment is blocked by the unfamiliar and strange. And last but not least, the work shown here represents a pictorial methodology rejected by the artist himself. In short, it is Bradford’s conundrum.
Bradford’s work has appeared in these pages many times over the last three years. His work has provided rich insights into the Torah subject matter that he has, as a non-Jew, devoted himself to. His last exhibition in December 2002 showed work of extreme simplicity, a radical High Modernism in the service Biblical exegesis. The starkly spare line against a flat picture plane devoid of atmospheric effects successfully echoed the elegantly simple Biblical texts that he chooses to comment upon. The current exhibition is dramatically different, looking
backward at work that is still rooted in many of the Renaissance traditions of Western painting.
We see in these paintings normative concepts of pictorial space; foreground, middle ground and even deep background space. There is a persistent sense of looking into a framed scene or tableau in marked contrast to the radically flat surface of the more recent works. Even the exhibition space is traditional, a Gothic chapel in the Union Theological Seminary. While most readers of the Jewish Press will probably not feel comfortable viewing this artwork in a Christian seminary, nonetheless the paintings bear important messages for us to uncover.
Esther’s Feast (1996) seems to represent the final confrontation between Esther and Haman in a straightforward manner. The King and Haman are grouped on the left opposite a reclining Esther. A bizarre orchid-like flower intrudes from the side establishing the exotic decadence of the scene. As we follow the three heads across the middle of the canvas, other annoying details become apparent. The King is seated in a chair that visually binds him to the figure of Haman. Haman is striving in the opposite direction, threatening to tear asunder this unnatural pairing. If we note the scale of Haman’s head we realize that he is probably much deeper in
the pictorial space than the King. We have been tricked by a mere juxtaposition. Once our eyes adjust to this spatial reconfiguration the real subject of the painting begins to emerge.
The painting is actually depicting the confrontation between Esther and the King. They are locked together in visual struggle across the diminutive banquet table. Her face is in shadow
while her arm gestures accusingly. The King’s profile is staring directly at her as he leans forward and begins to rise in apprehension. Her singular presence rooted at the base of a massive column demands the King make the just decision to destroy the enemy of the Jews. Bradford has revealed that up until now the King was ambivalent. Now he must choose. This drama is played out in a paradoxically empty royal hall, observed only by two witnesses in
the distance precisely midway between the King and his Queen.
The use of deep space in Esther’s Feast is collapsed into the interior space of Jael and Sisera
(1995). We find ourselves deep inside Jael’s tent, witness to her assassination of the defeated general Sisera. The warm interior of the tent contrasted with the sharp triangle of the opening to the outside sets the scene of her deception and struggle. The hammer is seen brilliantly illuminated beneath the bed as a counterpoint to the tent peg silhouetted in Sisera’s skull. She slinks around the body on all fours, perhaps stunned at her power in slaying the man whom the Midrash describes as “in his might has conquered the whole world ? there was no city whose wall he could not cause to collapse with his voice…”
Once again Bradford’s painting confounds our narrative expectations of Jael’s triumphant victory by use of unusual pictorial space. A typical triumph should normally ascend in a vertical format, whereas this painting assaults the viewer by thrusting Sisera’s feet and legs literally into our faces. It is the ignominious view of a corpse in a morgue, his legs flayed out like a drunk on the sidewalk. Sisera is disgraced by the very space the artist has assigned him.
The Covenant of the Parts (1991) utilizes the depiction of space in the most radical manner of
these paintings. A superficial reading of this image yields a simple description of a series of dead animals that delineate the foreground leading towards a smoking fiery presence at the extreme left. The starkly lit figure of Abraham is seen midway into the open field that stretches before us. Far in the distance a mysterious structure, perhaps a steeple, a monument or a smokestack, dominates the horizon.
This enormous painting, nine and a half feet by twelve feet, is an overwhelmingly dark and brooding meditation on what cannot be expressed, indeed what cannot be made into art, namely the fundamental covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. The nature of the mystery is explicated in absences in the painting. Each pictorial element, while pretending to normatively describe a scene, is lacking essential details. The consuming fire at the far left is only seen in reflection of its smoke, its essence hidden offstage. Likewise the slaughtered
animals, symbolic of future sacrifices that will atone for the Jewish people, are not yet clearly cut in two as the biblical text demands.
Billowing smoke (the smoky furnace of the text) enters the painting from the right and further
obscures the all-important sacrifices. Finally this same smoke partially blocks our view of Abraham, covering his lower half and isolating him. Bradford’s depiction of the covenant giving the Jewish people the Land of Israel is filled with uncertainty and dread. All that seems to make visual sense, symbolically, rings hollow and distant. He seems to be telling us that, while we all continue to believe in this covenant, because of the subsequent history of loss and exile that extends up to this very day, we cannot fully apprehend the Covenant Between the Parts.
Bradford’s current exhibition celebrating his unorthodox use of traditional pictorial devices allows us to see his past work after seeing his most recent modernist works. This distortion in his artistic chronology uncovers one salient idea stemming from ‘Bradford’s conundrum.’ Jewish art, especially biblical subjects, are not limited to one ideal means of artistic expression, even within the work of one artist. Rather the complex nature of these subjects demands the use of multiple avenues of creativity to bring out continuously richer and more fruitful
Note: The review of Remembrance: Russian Post-Modern Nostalgia; at Yeshiva University Museum, originally scheduled for this week, has been postponed so that more research can be done on the subject. It will be published in the near future.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to email him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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