John Bradford – 1999

john-bradford-essayTHE OLSON GALLERY | Bethel College
JOHN BRADFORD | Biblical Paintings | August 31 – December 17, 1999

The “Biblical” and the “Painting” in John Bradford’s “Biblical Paintings.”

In Jewish and Christian tradition there is a crucial phrase which, by all that it implies, has deeply shaped our psyches:  “Where is it written?”  Indicating as it does the central power of our written scriptures, that phrase sends the thinking believer back to the text where one is nurtured by these ancient stories and confronted again with the shaping force of their telling.  And by thus returning again to where it is written, our perpetual urge to rewrite these stories according to our own ambitions is challenged.  John Bradford’s Biblical Paintings hold before us these ancient and formative stories in a richly visual encounter.  He selects crucial moments in the narrative of the Bible’s seminal characters, moments ripe with the implications of their entire lives, and then he finds a visual equivalent of those narratives which arrests us by their telling to the eye.  In Leah, for example, we see her kneeling in the tent before her father Laban’s household gods.  She reaches beseechingly from the shadowy left side of the painting towards the shadowy right side, where a field of brooding burgundy and gray suspends the god in mystery.  Knowing that Jacob is taking her and all their family away to the people of a different God, and that their future is uncertain, she reaches out to the idol of her childhood only to have a gash of light bisect the painting’s heart where the tent flap opens, completing her separation from the lesser god.

Few painters have explored Leah’s interior experience, this “weak-eyed” elder sister, married off by her father through deceit, sharing the bed of her husband with her sister, Rachel, and their two hand-maidens, all four women competing sexually to win Jacob’s affection by giving him children.  Certainly the Bible’s text does not explore the inner experience of Leah.  For that matter, the Bible does not explore the inner lives of most of its characters.  So terse is the Bible’s literary style that the reader is left to interpret its characters’ personal lives by measuring their inner experience as we always do against the backdrop of our own experience.  It is precisely these kinds of qualities in the biblical text that interests Bradford.  Bradford has said that what interests him in the Bible’s text is not solely the “naturalistic” plot and character lines of these stories.  Rather, what interests him is how the “naturalistic” plot line of individuals is juxtaposed to larger, abstract patterns or structures within the Bible as a whole.

Take Leah, for example.  The text remains largely silent about her personal experience.  This, even though if we imagine it, we are aghast.  Instead, the Bible’s text is busy narrating the much larger, abstract pattern of God’s design, a design in which Leah is but a thread.  For while in the immediate narrative these four women take turns bedding Jacob to satisfy his desire for children, the larger story is unfolding as a meta-narrative about satisfying God’s desire for a tribe by which to launch the nation of Israel.  “Jacob” the individual begets his family, while “Israel” (Jacob’s larger and more abstract God-given name) founds a nations and alters world history through the flurry of sex and begetting inside his tent.  His tent which still harbors these women’s memory of Laban’s household gods, even as it also now harbors the larger will of Yahweh, the God of gods.  And Leah?  Leah the individual is herself inside the privacy of her own experience, but she also is a woman locked into the larger abstract patterns of her society and of Yahweh, patterns beyond her perception and control.

All of this is what Bradford seeks to paint.  This is the energy of his work.  For in the way that Bradford paints these stories, he clearly references the immediate surfaces of their narratives at the same time that he alludes to the mysterious patterns of the Bible’s overall structures.  Indeed, he leans dangerously close to illustration, only to veer away from being illustrative by his reductive method of simplifying, abstracting, making figures more universal and then fusing their gestures into bold abstract compositions of passionately brushed color forms.  The characters in these narratives become locked into larger abstract patterns which are beyond their control and yet in which there is somehow still room for them to act and retain their personal identities.

It is in this merging of abstract pattern and individual identity that Bradford’s paintings touch upon the biblical.  The naïve viewer of Bradford’s paintings may be too easily satisfied with these images, in the same way that naïve readers of the Bible are too easily satisfied with its stories.  But Bradford’s interest in the Bible’s text lies both in the stories it tells and in the narrative structures by which it embodies and makes compelling what is told.  Bradford has said that, “I had a big breakthrough from a kind of naturalistic painting to a more abstract, reductive style when I hit the Old Testament because I found the Old Testament to be anti-naturalistic.  Its structure—its narrative structure—is discontinuous from nature.  There are abstract formulations of conversations, of movement between scenes, between man and woman, man and sons, man and God.  The more you show, the more descriptive the picture, the less biblical.  The Bible isn’t about description.  Rather, the concentration is on the development of a consciousness and moral values.”  And Bradford’s intersecting of a style using “reduced naturalistic” scenes within larger patterns of abstract formal structures is about that kind of consciousness.  In the end, the coherence of the biblical is not strictly rational or naturalistic.  Rather, as Bradford puts it, “there are these hidden structural links such that one story is preparing you in its structure for the next.”  Likewise, Bradford’s biblical paintings pay their respects to narrative naturalism, but are ultimately abstract in their structure in order to embody the deeper presence of God’s far-reaching patterns and intentions for human experience.

Put in other words, in the Bible’s narratives, and in Bradford’s paintings dealing with them, it is as if there is a kind of dialogue between what is “shown” and “what is left out.”  This dialogue strikes at the very heart of that biblical consciousness.  For in essence, the Bible blends a seemingly natural narrative of events between human persons with each other (“what can be shown” and is “naturalistic”) with the active presence of a divine Being who is ineffable and undepictable (“what is left out” because God cannot be shown in natural terms).  The biblical text is about the deep intersection of the divine and the human.  On the surface of the text, God and human characters may be spoken about, and events may be verbally rendered.  This is the language of naturalism and illustration.  But such language is severely limited, because the substance of the intersections of human and divine persons is not (and cannot be) rendered naturalistically.  That substance is spiritual and mysterious, which is the language of abstraction.  Bradford is right in sensing how the “anti-naturalistic character of the Old Testament’s narrative structure” forces meanings as much by what it juxtaposes without explanation, as by what it actually says.

This is why, in the richest veins of Jewish and Christian tradition, the phrase, “where is it written,” is always accompanied by a second and equally crucial phrase, “how is it written?”  Nowhere, for example, does the reader who pays attention to “how it is written,” feel this more profoundly than in the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, which narrates the binding of Isaac by Abraham (a theme treated twice in this exhibition).  The immensity of this incident, the huge abstract patterns it weaves into the rest of history and the understanding of faith, are staggering.  These few verses establish nothing less than the completing of Abraham’s (and therefore our) grasp of radical monotheism, nothing less than the prefiguring of Christian salvation in the father’s sacrifice of his beloved son, and nothing less than the establishing of the paradigm regarding what it means to live and be justified by faith.  And yet, the actual text of the Bible, the how it is written, is shockingly sparse.  It is reduced to an almost informational accounting of Abraham’s actions, accompanied by a very matter-of-fact dialogue.  Nothing is actually said in the text about the internal states or turmoil of Abraham and Isaac.  Indeed, we are already interpreting according to our own experience if we use the word “turmoil.”

Thus, in nineteen brief verses, one of the most formative stories on the Western psyche is conveyed with essentially no introspection in the conveying. Enormous issues must be read in through “what is left out in relation to what is shown.”  The religious meanings of monotheism, faith, covenant, and archetype must be grasped as much through the gaps—the abstractions and negative spaces between what is shown and not shown—as through what is explained.  What is implied in the “negative spaces” of the narrative surrounding Abraham’s story; and what is implied in the abstract color patterns of space surrounding the figures in Bradford’s compositions, is the real substance of encounter between God and humans.  What interests Bradford, as a painter, is finding the visual equivalence—what he calls “a complete structural idea”—of such moments of intersection.  He has said that he “seeks that point of just the right tension where the entire picture plane is vibrating and yet there’s still room to move.  It is the painter’s job to find a visual equivalent of this physical and spiritual point.”

Wayne L. Roosa, Art Historian
Bethel College

All quotations of John Bradford are taken from an interview with John Bradford by Thomas Toperzer and Wayne Roosa, in his New York City studio, on 11/14/94.