John Bradford By Land and By Sea
John Bradford, whose familial lineage goes back to the Mayflower, now has up a strong, messy group of paintings that refer to early American history: pictures of the Mayflower ship, the Native American Massasoit’s meeting with Puritan pilgrims, a wonderful landscape acting more or less abstractly in its suggestion of the possibilities, actual and spiritual, of the New World. The works are thick with paint and implications--what we have is nothing less than the re-envisioning of early American history, in a way that emphasizes the act of painting just as much as it underscores the beginnings of our nation. Thus, the purpose of history is repurposed in a very contemporary way, so that the visual experience is not less than the content addressed.
This does not mean that the events take a backseat to impasto. Bradford’s personal inheritance gives him a certain authority in managing the historical drift of his art. But the paintings maintain a genuine beauty, even if they go against our affinity for flatness in art. There is a visionary cast to much of what he does. For example, in the iconic portrait of the Mayflower, which Bradford painted in 2019, presents the two-masted ship, replete with sails moving toward the left on a still, dark blue sea lit at times by a luminous horizon. Dark clouds cover most of the sky, The title, Mayflower November 11, 1620, refers to the governmental compact signed on the ship, the first official document relating to government to be created in what would become the United States (William Bradford, the artist’s forebear, was one of those drafting the agreement that everyone on the ship would abide by colony rules). It is a study implying the absolute beginning of American government, with the painting emphasizing, in nearly apocalyptic fashion, the beginnings of a nation.
In the 2017 painting called Approaching the Promised Land (2017), Bradford exchanges historical specificity for visionary landscape. Here, two tall, fully foliaged trees stand in a grassy plot in the middle of the painting. Above is a sky beginning to move toward sunset, with grayish-blue clouds at the top, and just beneath them, on the left, a bit of darkening yellow above a rocky promontory edged by a limited view of ocean. Then the right side has this thick wedge of what looks like an abstract version of the masses about to take advantage of the promise of a new world. We don’t see faces or bodies so much as we see what looks like rows of featureless people ready to inhabit the paradise described on their left. This faceless aggregate of people must refer to the future--to the millions and millions of immigrants who would eventually make their way to America. The rough mass of persons contrasts sharply with the exquisite nature depicted in the painting. This work, like the painting of the Mayflower, also examines history, but from a mixed view, utopian and thickly realistic. Still, the promise of the land stands out.
Washington Returns to Mount Vernon (2019) shows our first president in a dark blue coat and hat and yellow pants riding a very roughly painted white horse along a tan road backed by trees on the left. To the right of the figure is an open field leading up to the white house with a red roof, encompassed by trees, that was Washington’s home. A blue sky with thick clouds fills the upper register of the painting, while the foreground is taken up with loosely described natural detritus on the bottom edge of the painting; and then, on the other side of the road, green bushes rising up from what looks like a ledge of light stone. For all the improvisatory, ephemeral brushwork establishing the imagery, the painting depicts a formal return. Bradford seems most interested here in conveying a great historical personage in an informal light. Still, something of the importance of Washington is available in this equestrian portrait. The rough handling of the paint gives the composition a folk art feeling, although we easily recognize this is hardly folk art at all.
Painter Bradford goes very far back, to the commencement of the Western presence in America (if we exclude the Vikings), with the 2019 painting called The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Mostly rose in color, the composition presents the three ships as they proceed to the right, notable for their complicated pinkish-white sail arrangement. We see a pink, white body of water in the foreground--one assumes it is the Hudson River--and a hilly space in the middle of third of the painting (a deep-bluish mountainous rise occurs in the right background), framed above by a complicated sky of black, yellow, and red with dry, nearly transparent brush marks sweeping over the color, the painting is as much a landscape as it is a history tableau. This happens throughout the work we see in the show. Bradford may be offering us a chronicle of what has become a founding myth of our country, but he is also a dedicated painter, someone given to textures and to more conservative treatments of painting tropes than we might at first imagine.
In a way, it can be argued that these works present Bradford’s audience with a bit of historical biography, given that his ancestor William Bradford was one of the Puritan leaders on the Mayflower. But that does not truly explain the fascination of the pictures. I don’t know for certain that Bradford is an anti-modernist, but he is a figurative history painter in this show. The autonomy demonstrated by his choice of theme and visual style is unusual and deserves praise. An overview of his painting style is likely complex, in the sense that he silently eschews current, dominant styles, or kinds of thinking, in favor of a homegrown directness. The backstory of his lineage is interesting but not necessary to our enjoyment of the art, which treats very well-known subject matte in a visionary fashion. These revisions of early American events are also artistic visions in their own right, presenting us with an imagery whose point of view cannot be severed from our historical birth, even as it entertains, even delights, the eye.
- Jonathan Goodman, New York, April 21, 2020