“Hard to Explain”: Lisa Bradley’s Mysterious Abstractions
Lisa Bradley: The Fullness of Being at Hollis Taggart Galleries
January 29 to February 28, 2015
958 Madison Avenue (at 75th Street)
New York, 212 628 4000
New York veteran Lisa Bradley’s abstract paintings communicate feeling above all else. Often looking like cloudscapes, and usually occurring in a dark, midnight blue, Bradley’s pictures summon visions of endlessness on a cosmic spiritual level. Her work is open to contemplation and deeply felt experience; the paintings are mystical in nature and suggest the sky, the ocean — places where one finds and retrieves the self in heightened circumstances. Because the paintings are so resolutely abstract, it is hard to pin them down to a particular place; Bradley’s audience must imagine both the emotion and its provenance in processing the inchoate intensity of her art. Championed early in her career by the famous dealer Betty Parsons, Bradley can claim kinship with major New York School artists such as Rothko and Pollock; however, her independence as a painter is notable, in large part because she is so determined to present an undertow of feeling and force through abstraction alone. Interestingly, though, the radical self-containment of Bradley’s paintings often opens up to sweeping vistas that relate to the infinite. So the works have the tendency to switch back and forth between closed and open states. Thus, Bradley’s broad horizons issue forth from a relatively narrow spectrum of expression; the paintings are closely related, and their cumulative effect on the viewer is striking.
How does Bradley’s art compare now, when seen in the light of rising artists? The start of her career belongs to a different time in New York, when painting was of primary importance in the hierarchy of contemporary art. Things have changed — there are many kinds of art vying for our attention — but abstraction has never died out here, where the romance and legacy of major New York nonobjective artists continues to make a pronounced impact. Bradley consequently looks like a painter who has continued in her own fashion as she follows her creativity in subtle ways. Her style, large and voluminous, is found in sequences of related imagery. One moves from work to work and gains appreciation of the dense color and mysterious patches of light, which heighten the sense that something is about to happen. The feeling one has on seeing the paintings is that of silent imminence; it proves hard to explain them with words.
Indeed, intellectual readings fail to explain the meaning of Bradley’s art. In the fine painting Passing (2011), we look at a dark-blue background, against which passages and spots of white contrast in luminous fashion. Although it is not a large painting, Passing presents a spectacle indicative of imminent change — we can ask what it is we are passing through, or if the changing sky or currents of the sea are about to engage in another transformation. The title of the painting, a single word, hints at the occurrence of something reshaping; it is an idea supported by the abrupt contrast between light and dark in the painting itself. As Bradley’s viewers, we are struck by the intense flux of elements caught in a particular moment, just before everything alters. Another painting, Through This (2012), feels like a study of the deep sea. Like Passing, it is painted a dark blue with bits of white color rising from underneath the surface. The title suggests a meaning, but it is hard to say exactly what it is; the image is an intuitive experience.
The oceanic feeling of Bradley’s pictures, both in a literal and figurative context, never goes away. Indeed, the grandness of the pictures is what sustains them. Larger than life, they display a ready familiarity with sublime feeling. Nothing Lost (2012) could nearly be the background sky in one of El Greco’s more melancholic paintings; instead of blue, Bradley’s work brings forth a few blurs of light in a nearly black setting. The implications of the picture’s title are as mystical and incipient as the art we see. At times Bradley’s enterprise can become unclear by her refusal to explain or define her motives. But Bradley is a painter who believes in large philosophies. Because she is working with nearly a boundless sense of form, particulars give way to large insights. So Bradley’s art reminds us of the formless attractions of color alone, and the pleasures of meditating on the infinite. She leaves us room for thought.