Joe Bradley's Geisha draws on the visual vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism, incorporating signature features of the genre, such as a large canvas, expressive, textural paint strokes, and a carefully considered and balanced color palette. This composition, with its passages of color gathered in the center of the canvas, evokes the iconic abstract work of Abstractionists such as Hans Hofmann. His integration of the typical hallmarks of Abstract Expressionism is so recognizable that the painting strikes the viewer not only as a referential work, but also as one that is critical of its stylistic antecedents. The artist creates a painting that recasts a critically-acclaimed movement, and thus questions its viability in our contemporary context. Bradley’s interrogation of the Abstract Expressionist idiom is most evident in his process; the artist himself stated, “I’m not really a dynamic painter. It’s not action painting” (the artist cited in Stephanie LaCava, “Joe Bradley,” The Paris Review, 22 February 2011). Unlike an artist such as Jackson Pollock, who was known for whipping out finished paintings in a matter of hours, Bradley describes his method as thoughtful and laborious. While he does not always begin a painting with a particular composition in mind, each stroke is carefully considered and placed. The underlying impetus for the painting is not emotive, but intellectual. Nick Stillman writes, “Whether motioning toward the sublime or the base, Bradley’s work is always formally elegant” (Nick Stillman, “Joe Bradley,” Art Forum, January 2009). Geisha, with its somber blocks of color layered over a stippled ground, demonstrates a thorough understanding of abstract compositional techniques, divorced from any articulated moral principle or ideology.
Bradley’s work even appears to question the efficacy of abstract painting more broadly. The name of the work is, after all, Geisha, signaling the artist’s insistence on subjectivity. After considering the title, the viewer begins to read the amassed blocks of color as a geisha; the paint strokes appear to gather into the figure of a swaggering, formidable woman. Trinie Dalton suggests, “The paintings engaged in a dialogue that anthropomorphized the works to challenge definitions of abstract painting as a philosophically hard-line, self-referential process” (Trinie Dalton, “Joe Bradley: About the Artist,” Whitney Biennial 2008, New York 2008). In other words, even as Bradley’s painting adopts aspects of the abstract genre, it does not portend to be an apex of pure form, but rather embraces imaginative and fanciful associations. It is this deft play of the expected and the absurd which gives Bradley’s work its sarcastic bent. The viewer is not sure whether the painting is a sincere tribute to abstraction or an outright critique of it.
Perhaps, for Bradley, painting is not so much about intention, as it is about concentrated observation. He remarked, “Painting is very satisfying, but not exactly fun. I like the pace of it. I like that it’s an experience that resists media. You have to be there in front of it to experience it—that’s a rare item these days” (the artist cited in Stephanie LaCava, “Joe Bradley,” The Paris Review, 22 February 2011). For Bradley, the making of a painting is not merely a playful or humorous event, it is also a process that commands all of one’s attention and demands a critical, unrelenting eye. This could also be said of the experience of looking at Geisha. The present work toys with the viewer’s expectations, combining pleasing, familiar forms with a flippant, unorthodox attitude. The painting bravely and masterfully compels the viewer to look closely and to reconsider the sincerity of accepted aesthetic norms.
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