Going with the Flow: Frank Bramblett at the Woodmere
Dispatch from Philadelphia
Frank Bramblett: No Intention at the Woodmere Art Museum
March 7 to June 21, 2015
9210 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia, PA, 215 247 0476
Attention art materials: if you see Frank Bramblett coming, run! Through four decades of work, the Philadelphia-based artist has slashed, sanded, and frozen his way through pools of paint, loads of marble dust, and acres of canvas. The results he has achieved are on display in the exhibition “No Intention,” at Philadelphia’s Woodmere Art Museum through June 21.
I take issue with the exhibition’s title, as it suggests a lack of direction. From his arrival in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, Bramblett has shown a clear intent with every piece he made — but sidestepped the conventional application of brush to canvas. In early works such as Red Wrap (1973), for example, the artist poured acrylic paint into a frame to create both the illusion and the reality of an undulating surface. Shiny pools of paint form a light-to-dark brown gradient that resembles the humps of a Naugahyde couch. The artist took this pour method to extremes in White Face (1974), burying a layered pool of paint in the snow and snapping its frozen edges. The resulting fissures revealed thin, colored lines that frame a buckling white field. Like Jo Baer’s paintings from the early 1970s, Bramblett’s pour paintings push the action from center to extremity.
In pieces such as FeO (1977) Bramblett heaped minerals onto the painted surface, loaded his paint with ferrous oxide sand and scraped it across the canvas in razor-sharp diagonals. The resulting charcoal-gray grit pushes past the edges of the panel support, making the canvas resemble a slab of chipped slate, blurring the line between sculpture and painting.
During the 1980s, Bramblett’s small, abstract work turned large and figurative. Oh No Yoko! Where What Where (1982) filled an entire wall with a frieze-like progression of bodies borrowed from myth and art history. We move through Manet’s Dead Toreador (1864), Picasso’s Three Musicians (1921), and Matisse’s Dance (1910) — all laboriously cut from linoleum tiles of varying patterns and colors. It would be tempting to say that in this stage Bramblett was drawn into a trendy post-modern phalanx of appropriation, pattern and decoration, and pop cultural fetish. A closer look reveals that the Bramblett’s labor-intensive “destruction-as-creation” practices from the ‘70s continued to be the driving force in his work. Instead of applying paint to a surface, he applied one surface to another, cheerfully breaking mirrors into shards and cutting hard tiles into precise shapes in order to build a material object.
More recent works embrace the large scale but shift the narrative from grand themes to personal experience. Holes in Dive In (2001) reveal small sea or lakeside photographs showing endless expanses of pebbles and rivulets of water. These tiny windows into natural topography are engulfed by a broad field (90 x 72 inches) of meandering parallel lines made by running a comb-like instrument through a thick layer of pink paint. There is an almost seamless continuity between the photographic documentations of nature and Bramblett’s simulations of the same.
The traditional attitude toward paint is to view regard it as plastic — i.e. a formless substance ready to take on whatever characteristics the painter gives it. Although Bramblett certainly puts his paint and canvas through boot camp, in the end he lets them decide what they will be. Rather than lack of intention, his approach is a confidence that the materials have become so infused with his personality that they tell his story on their own.