Simple materials, complex works

An occasional trickle of excitement breaks through Tony Bradley’s reserved demeanor when he begins talking about his new work, and who can blame him? For the past 10 months, Bradley has been using new processes in the creation of a fresh set of drawings, resulting in pieces that are startlingly simple but rendered with dense, complex marks that demonstrate both serious intent and great skill.

Textured treasures: One of Tony Bradley’s untitled works from his new exhibit at Semi-Public.

Formerly a printmaker, Bradley has spent the past 10 years working exclusively in black and white. When the physical demands of printmaking began to wear on him, he switched to watercolor. One day, acting on an impulse, he began drawing on a small, unfinished painting. The combination of the two media sparked an entirely new series of works, spanning a variety of sizes and orientations. These works are currently on display at Semi-Public Gallery’s Event Horizon exhibit.

Some of the works have a single shape leaving a lot of negative space, while others have multiple shapes and cover nearly the entire surface of the paper. There is no doubt, however, that they constitute a cohesive exploration of one central idea.

“That idea is about space,” Bradley says. “How do you manipulate space, how do you break it up? All these works are variations on a theme, and that theme is one I can see in all my work over the years. There is always the same impetus for the piece—how do you manipulate space?”

Representational content isn’t Bradley’s aim with these drawings, and he matter-of-factly states that they “have no titles, just dates.” When told that viewers might see tornados, anatomical parts, or shanks of hair in the work, Bradley insists, “There is no subject matter. If there is any imagery, it is subconscious. They are just about line—the process of forming a line. The impulse to make an abstract work of art is both physical and mental. It can come in a moment and just as quickly be gone. In these drawings, the drawing is the subject matter.”

There seems to be an almost obsessive quality in these works, one that is implicit in the process. Bradley begins by carefully taping his paper to a piece of archival matboard on his wall. He then begins to draw, usually from an image in his ever-present sketchbook.

“I sharpen four or five pencils at a time and begin to draw, rotating the pencils as the point dulls,” he says. “Working on the wall opens up the drawing—you get into a rhythm. You can go through a lot of pencils in five or six days of work.”

The shapes in these drawings are simple, but the quality of the line is exquisite. There is one work with a shape that is vaguely reminiscent of a wave in a Japanese woodblock print, while others are circular or chalice-like. Ultimately, Bradley says, they are all “about the line.”

Bradley is one of the principals in the Semi-Public Gallery, which opened in the mid-1990s and has exhibited works from a very limited number of artists from time to time since. Shawn Willett, the new director of the gallery, says he is committed to keeping the space going with monthly openings as well as instituting regular hours of operation. For now, those interested in seeing Bradley’s work will have to plan to view the works in advance, as the space is only open one evening each month, and by appointment.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]

who: Opening reception for Event Horizon, featuring works by Tony Bradley and Gary Byrd
what: Abstract explorations in line art
where: Semi-Public Gallery (305 Hillside St.)
when: Saturday, July 12. 6-9 p.m. (Free. Show is on display by appointment through Wednesday, July 30. 919-619-4269)


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