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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Mercer Gallery’

Illustrating The Postmodernist’s Bible: Nature in John Bradford’s Art

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

Member Exhibition: John Bradford

Recent Work: Biblical Subjects

Hung April 24 – May 19, 2007

55 Mercer Gallery, 55 Mercer Street, New York




         Some painters enslave themselves to detailed landscapes, patiently tracking every tree branch and grass blade in an effort to transcribe and document everything. As “naturalists,” these artists abide by a modern derivation of Plato’s notion of ideal art: painted grapes so real that they fool the birds into trying to consume them. There is desperation in this body of work, and viewers get the sense that the artists, fearing that reality will soon disappear, half expect to be called as expert witnesses to preserve the memory of each berry and twig. John Bradford is certainly not one of these artists, and in fact he even bluntly denounces nature as sacrilegious.


         Bradford once enjoyed Rembrandt’s “philo-Semitism” and “severe” chiaroscuro (depicting depth in art via value, or shading), which “was the best way to eliminate nature and focus on the narrative.” But he later decided that Rembrandt’s solution “was as dualistically Christian as others, in that he used light as a metaphor for goodness filling a demonic darkness. In the Beginning, G-d did separate the light from the dark, but I don’t remember Him voicing an opinion about which was good and which was bad.


         This sort of ambiguity as to what is good and what is bad is a typically postmodern inquiry, and it exposes itself to one of the popular indictments of postmodernism: It is arbitrary. When one concerns oneself with unpacking language for purposes of laying bare its assumptions and exposing its inability to truly communicate, one must use some means of communication to convince others that communication is suspect.


         Why, the critic of postmodernism often asks, do some words and ideas (namely postmodernism) get to survive the onslaught on language, while others (classicism, truth, justice, etc.) are unfairly targeted? There really is no good answer to this question (in part because the postmodernist would deconstruct “good” and “answer”), but there does not really have to be one.


         Bradford’s art is a great example why this is so. In his paintings, which hung recently at the Mercer Gallery in New York, Bradford depicts Biblical scenes as if he were directing a film, with a keen eye for set design. Many of the works contain foliage of some sort, whether they populate interior or outside scenes. And here is where the arbitrary kicks in: There is no reason to assume that Moses stood outside as he cast his staff to the ground, so that it might become a serpent. Even the recent animated Prince of Egypt had the good sense to depict the scene inside Pharaoh’s palace, surrounded by guards, magicians and slaves. Exodus 7: 10-13 remains ambiguous on the matter, though the verse does suggest the two went “in” (the Hebrew is aleph-lamed) to Pharaoh, according to some translations. But Bradford’s “Moses before Pharaoh” occurs outside, surrounded by trees and dirt.



John Bradford, “Moses before Pharaoh.”



         The decision to infuse the scene with trees is at once arbitrary and meaningful. Trees in the Bible symbolize a number of things from life (“a tree of life – ‘etz chaim’ - it is for those who grasp it”) to might (Song of Songs, 7:7) to knowledge of good and evil (as in Eden). The field is a chaotic place where Esau lives his violent life, while Jacob studies in his tent. But fields also served as loci of meditation for many prophets like Moses and David, who were shepherds in their pre-prophetic days. By placing Moses’ anti-natural act of turning a staff into a snake (the Bible’s blend of nanotechnology or alchemy) in a natural context (trees), Bradford reveals new aspects of the narrative that are otherwise lost in most people’s conceptions of Biblical stories as containing characters without setting.


         In fact, Bradford’s textual inquires reflect themselves in his art-making process. “I am an heir to the great American Abstract Expressionist movement in that the painting is process: I arrive at my composition as I paint,” he wrote in an email. “I paint the entire composition directly onto the canvas and keep re-attacking the entire surface over and over again until, as I said, the narrative gesture of the work feels appropriate to the format, and I stop.”


         Jacob Blessing His Sons” is another example of Bradford’s “attack” upon Biblical space, and another one that he resolves through nature. The viewer can barely make out a bed with a character lying upon it on the extreme left hand side of the canvas, as other “figures” surround Jacob. One red character may be kneeling on the floor – perhaps Simeon or Levi beseeching his father’s forgiveness for sacking Shechem and the ensuing genocide. Another red figure stands off in the distance in the top right corner of the canvas, perhaps representing a guard watching the scene, or the anti-social and alienated Joseph, who later brings his sons to say goodbye to Jacob alone, without his brothers around. The red figure stands in a green oasis of trees and life, amidst the larger environment of hot browns, reds and ochres of the Egyptian desert. In a room that has surely begun to smell of death, Bradford has drawn a large green plant (bottom right), and a window or doorway looking out to a garden full of life.



John Bradford, “Jacob Blessing His Sons.”



         Bradford has often appeared in Richard McBee’s reviews in these pages for his Biblical paintings, but he may strike some as an unlikely guest in a column on Jewish arts, as he is not Jewish. Surely, non-Jews paint Jewishly all the time (think Hiram and company building the Temple), but Bradford’s connection to Judaism and Jewish art is somewhat deeper than most. “I believe Judaism is an authentic religion,” he said through email. “My work celebrates the Hebraic Biblical ethos at the heart of our American heritage.” He considers the modern era “a consequence of a perspective unique to Judaism” that “nature is disenchanted and that man struggles creatively within nature to build a system of Justice, which was the single positive commandment given to Noah.”


         To Bradford, modern painting, so appealing for its bible-like “language of reduction and discontinuity,” shares an “anti-naturalistic perspective” with the Bible. “The Bible concerns itself with distinctions, separations, and boundaries. So does a good painting,” he wrote in an artist statement, which at times recalls Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s conceptions in Halakhic Man, “I used to believe that it was uncanny how the conventions of Biblical narration so perfectly captured the vicissitudes and quirks of reality. Now I see it is quite the other way around.”


         In a May 7 review of Bradford’s Mercer 55 show in The Village Voice, R.C. Baker wrote: “These 14 Biblical scenes, painted with a drippy, Abstract Expressionist brio, are devoid of both fundamentalist didacticism and secular snarkiness, while beautifully evoking the imperfect humanity underlying the divine.” Baker is quite right to point out that Bradford refrains from preaching, though over email he hardly holds back from voicing his opinions. “Of course I detest contemporary trends that blithely expropriate Biblical stories to expound on current events or to ridicule or demean Judaism,” he wrote, though he added, “but even in that case, it’s a free country.”


         Moses Strikes the Rock” might best represent Bradford’s methodology. In the work, Moses literally beats nature with his stick (thus Moses and Bradford and co-conspirators in the homicide), as water flows out toward the people. But the postmodernist in Bradford can hardly suffer the boundary between nature and man (there are no conspicuous women in the piece). The painting is a study in camouflage, as any predator trying to hunt the Jews would find the brown, black and white Jews indistinguishable from the trees and grass. For his part, Moses wears a light blue robe with an orange belt, which ought to distinguish him from the rest of the figures, but only serves to meld him with the flowing water. Just as Moses sins in his betrayal of the word of G-d by striking the stone, the environment has sinned, as the water (which literally is Moses in the piece) flows forth in response to the commandment of man, not G-d.



John Bradford, “Moses Strikes the Rock.”



         “By using Modernist conventions to reduce the narrative to its essentials, I invite the viewer to encompass the issues of the story in very concrete forms while simultaneously opening the viewer to the dialectical spirit of Biblical interpretation,” Bradford says of his work, and that is precisely what mature, credible Biblical art ought to do. 


        Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


         John Bradford’s work will be part of a group show in September at the Synagogue of the Arts on White Street in New York; www.synagogueforthearts.org.  

The Narrative Of Authority Paintings By John Bradford

Wednesday, March 24th, 2004

John Bradford, Paintings – 55 Mercer Gallery, 55 Mercer
Street, New York, N.Y. (212) 226-8513. Tuesday – Saturday
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Until February 21, 2004.



Authority, as the Gemara in Sanhedrin says, makes the world go round. Whether exercised as external power in governmental brute force or through the more subtle influences of religious or moral beliefs on our mental architecture, it is the defining element that allows us to function peacefully as social beings and even allows many of the niceties of civilization.

In the Jewish world, authority finds its source in none other than G-d Himself and the agency that we have internalized as Halacha. We have one source of authority and attempt to act within its confines as much as humanly possible. The issue of authority, specifically, the structure of our lives that defines the borders between personal conduct and socially legitimate behavior, must be mapped in order to be recognized. This relationship, according to Rabbi Dr. Avi Berkowitz, is precisely the issue that John Bradford’s current paintings address at the exhibition at 55 Mercer Gallery.

Berkowitz is no stranger to the concepts of both civil and religious authority. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University with a specialty in Middle East Studies. As a
musmach of Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, his rabbinic authority is solid. He teaches World Jewish History at the Ramaz Upper School and is the rabbi of the Community Synagogue located at East Sixth Street in Manhattan. Rabbi Dr. Berkowitz teaches a weekly Chumash class at his synagogue on Wednesday nights to, among others, his friend of at least 20 years – John Bradford. In light of that class and many years of artistic and scholarly interchange, Berkowitz feels that Bradford is an astute student of Torah and has “integrated the Jewish spirit of the narrative with its halachic dimension.” Berkowitz see evidence of this in one especially grisly painting in the exhibition, Phinehas (2003).

Pinchas is shown in the lower foreground center spearing the sinners Zimri and Cozbi on the left (Bamidbar 25: 7) as witnesses on the right look on in awe. The zealot Pinchas is seen as a complete figure, free, and empowered to act. It is depicted exactly as described by the Gemara in Sanhedrin, 82b. Commenting on this event, the Gemara explicates the Mishnah that states, “If one cohabits with a heathen woman, he is punished by zealots.” R. Dimi comments that the transgressor would be guilty of violating the prohibitions against niddah, a non-Jewish maidservant, a non-Jewish woman and a married woman. But once Zimri perpetrated this forbidden act as a revolt against the leadership of Moses, our teacher inexplicably forgot the
halacha. At that moment Pinchas, shocked to see what was happening, remembered the law, whereupon Moses replied to him, “He who reads the letter, let him be the agent [to carry out its instructions].” The Gemara is explicit concerning the execution of the Halacha; the
transgressors must be punished while in the act of their transgression. Any other manner or time would have transformed the righteous Pinchas into a common murderer.

According to Berkowitz, Bradford’s painting depicts, “Pinchas acting with the freedom of modern man and yet, the entire painting confines him within the structures of the law. The very specific nature of the visual depiction tells us he is acting only within the confines of Halacha. The Gemara is expressing the right and power of an individual to act, but only within the exact specifics of the Halacha. To deviate in any manner makes one liable to the death penalty. It
must be executed at the precise moment, and that is what Bradford has captured.” Berkowitz adds that these laws do not apply in our times when even a beit din lacks the authority to execute transgressors.

Bradford’s painting asserts that the self-authorizing individual can only exist within in the strict confines of Halacha. All of the Avot possessed this unique individualistic power. In Berkowitz’s analysis, this pivotal painting is starkly contrasted with three other paintings in
the exhibition that address further issues of authority.

Moses and Pharaoh (2003) is a distillation of the notion of “Despotism Confronted.” Exodus 10:25 -11:8, depicts the final encounter between Moses and Pharaoh in which Moses declares “I will never see your face again,” as “he left “Pharaoh’s presence in a burning anger.” Berkowitz sees “Pharaoh’s figure, outlined in yellow on the left, as a tightly bound despot, wrapped up and more and more constricted by the very institutions he created to crush society.” In contrast Moses is “about to become empowered and is on the verge of acting with freedom. His hand rises and is about to unfurl” as he departs. We see him in a faint after-image on the extreme right exiting the palace. Most importantly, Moses is seen in a transition
between being bound to Pharaoh’s authority and freely submitting to G-d’s authority. Seen in this light, Moshe is “still operating on the basis of direct instructions from G-d. He is Moshe Rabbainu in training. He is not yet the Moshe who will [on his own initiative] smash the Tablets. After that he becomes, in effect, a self-authorizing individual. Then, but only then, does he earn the right to ask to “see G-d’s face.”

Despotism is illegitimate governmental authority. Judaism challenged the pagan Pharaoh’s authoritarianism with the creation of the Jewish monarchy, as exemplified by the reign of Solomon. The Judgment of Solomon (2003) encapsulates the “Rise of Legitimate Authority.” Berkowitz describes Solomon’s hand “as fully extended in a manner that echoes the assertive posture of Pinchas. But Pinchas is placed in the lower half of the painting, acting only as an individual. Here, Solomon, towering over the figures of the supplicant women, is acting as a legitimate authority. He is totally liberated, reflecting legitimate authority in its flowering because Solomon is dealing with yichus - lineage - the most significant matter in Jewish life. Pinchas judges mere life and death, whereas lineage defines one’s identity. Pinchas cannot arbitrate such matters since he has no meaningful lineage.” Pinchas is the only grandson of Aaron, who is not a Kohen. This was the case since he had already been born when G-d decreed the Priesthood to be given to the sons of Aaron and his grandsons who were not yet born. The distinction between the individual, like Pinchas, who acts on his own, no matter how righteously, and the ruler who can judge lineage, as in the Judgment of Solomon, son of David, is crucial to the establishment of legitimacy. The right to secular authority within a Jewish context must arise out of a discernible past, a lineage of justice and halachic-bound power.

The contemporary world is provocatively depicted in the painting directly across from Solomon. George Bush at Ground Zero (2003) represents, according to Berkowitz, “Bush’s task to free himself from the albatross of his own lineage, specifically his father’s anti-Israel legacy. Only then, can his authority [to transform the American political reality emerging from the 9/11 catastrophe] be legitimated. His outstretched arm echoes Solomon’s commanding
gesture and yet his face is hidden because he is still not fully liberated from his family’s history. He must avoid the “Pinchas trap” that is implicit in the Western illusion of the self-covenanting individual. He must realize that his job is more than just arbitrating the life and death of the terrorists. Therefore, Bradford depicts Bush in the center of the painting, implying that Bush must choose whether he wants to rise to the level of Solomon or descend to the level of Pinchas. In other words, will Bush become a Solomon-like figure, a fully legitimate authority commanding world affairs, or will he remain a self-covenanting individual, acting heroically, but ultimately leaving no legacy.”

Berkowitz’s analysis has come full circle, linking the righteous, but limited and individual, act of Pinchas with the struggles of our current President to act forcefully against the evil of Islamic terror. Exercising authority in the international arena demands a recognized legitimacy. Considering the chorus of criticism, just doing the right thing is not sufficient. Legitimacy ultimately flows from G-d and a thoroughly righteous relationship with His people, the Jews, and His Nation, Israel. Part political analysis and part prophecy, Bradford’s painting has depicted “Authority Being Created.”

John Bradford and Avi Berkowitz comprise a curious couple. Bradford’s paintings blossom under Berkowitz’s trained eye as he traces a narrative of authority; originating in the narrow confines of the righteous individual, evolving in the maturation of Moses as communal leader and blossoming in the glory of Solomon’s national political leadership. The metaphorical climax of the paintings is reached at Ground Zero, the intersection of national tragedy and international crisis. This confluence of Torah, interpretation, halacha, politics and Jewish art alters everything it touches from Tanach to today’s headlines, leaving a permanent and disturbing impression on our consciousness.

Rabbi Dr. Avi Berkowitz’s comments were recorded at a gallery interview while viewing the paintings. I am grateful for his participation.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/the-narrative-of-authority-paintings-by-john-bradford/2004/03/24/

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