Reno, NV

Robert Brady

Stremmel Gallery

Robert Brady grew up in Reno, Nevada, on the edge of the Great Basin Desert, where it is common for residents to pick up otherwise unremarkable odds and ends—rocks, broken weathered wood, bits and pieces of crumpled tin—and cart them home. The process of collecting and then reassembling these curiosities in a new location—the happenstance of finding, the subsequent juxtaposition of disparate elements—forms, on the one hand, a new repository of information and, on the other, a space where looking and wanting, object and idea, resonate.

Echoes of this habit were evident in “A Full Backyard,” which assembled sixty-five recent works fabricated from a variety of materials—from ceramic to wood—ranging from allusive minimalist wall forms to large-scale figurative pieces and mixed-media works on paper. Brady’s energy and engagement in the process of making are palpable. Throughout, there is a kind of implied movement; one senses the artist’s thoughts jumping quickly from one idea and material to another as he investigates each new object. The gallery itself is to be commended for the eccentric installation—figures crouch expectantly in alcoves; pieces fly high on the walls, hovering near the reception desk—which served the artist’s everything-into-the-mix aesthetic well.

Several works exuded an ingenious yet goofy blend of humor and dread. Three untitled birds from 2009—assemblages of wire, wood, cloth, nails, fiber, and studio-floor sweepings—look like battered airplanes or Mad Max make-do contraptions that might, perhaps, be able to fly. A small carved wooden relief, Eye of the Storm, 1988, presents an outsize H. C. Westermann–like cyclonic form looming over a brick shelter and its terrified, stuck-in-the-doorway inhabitant, upending calm and sanctuary. Empire, 2006, is a large wooden comb laced with hundreds of staples; the gold foil and kanji covering its top are worn away, as if the sculpture were Ozymandias, broken artifact from a vanished desert tribe.

Some pieces—from a 2009 series of untitled works made by stretching a thin white skin over an underlying wooden armature—recall dustpans or shovel blades, while others might be mock-ups for ecclesiastical architecture, cathedral facades or floor plans. Similar intimations of wearied spirituality recur in large-scale figurative works. With elongated limbs that reach to the floor, some crouched or seated human forms imply thrones, alluding, it seems, both to the third of nine orders of angels and to thirteenth-century portrayals of virgins as the Seats of Wisdom.

Other works reference angels more explicitly. Equal parts Ginsbergian angel-headed hipsters and Blakean fair-haired denizens of the evening, these figures appear to belong to no particular religion, save perhaps one of Brady’s own making, whose basic tenets might be to keep looking, keep finding ideas and objects of interest. Inwardly focused—seemingly poised to speak yet reticent—the angels struggle to peer out into the world through hooded eyes. The lithe, quasi-tribal beings have attenuated Giacomettiesque appendages, and are mostly placed on makeshift pedestals so that they hover off-center, precariously balanced on or near the edges.

The angel Flit III, 2009, hangs horizontally on the wall with its legs drawn up to its chest, recalling a mantislike creature with one elytron, which could also be the chrysalis that once contained its still-developing body. In Daan, 2009, the figure’s hair is pulled back like that of a warrior preparing for the journey down the path; and in the many-jointed Plumb IV, 2009, the body is folded up, arms wrapped around its legs, which are lifted, jackknifed, up toward the face, projecting restive energy.

Brady’s work combines folk and outsider art references with elements of elegant craftsmanship in a manner that suggests both a disdain for high-art traditions and an affirmation of otherness. The construction of many pieces appears to have been labor intensive; marks on the works’ surfaces—chipped, carved, and burned wood, thinly washed paint—at once chart the act of physical expression and cloak the figures in suggestive layers, hinting at metaphor. But what makes the show truly resonate is the artist’s remarkable deployment of a diverse array of referents and the spirit with which Brady has reformulated and recontextualized his personal backyard wunderkammer into a series of visual poems, ah-ha moments, and epiphanies. This method of working, a process at once informed and aleatory, occurs often in the desert. As the poet Richard Shelton has noted: “I always looked for what I wanted / in the wrong places / until the desert /taught me to want what I found.”

Kirk Robertson