Los Angeles

View of “Bob Branaman,” 2017. Photo: Jeff McLane.

View of “Bob Branaman,” 2017. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Bob Branaman

Karma International | Los Angeles

View of “Bob Branaman,” 2017. Photo: Jeff McLane.

The Beat poet and playwright Michael McClure once remarked that to be an artist in the 1950s “was to be an outlaw. . . . They were ready to put you in jail.” Just ask LA-based artist, filmmaker, and poet Bob Branaman, who was first introduced to art while serving a stint in juvie way back in Kansas. Judging from this packed, polyphonic, decades-spanning exhibition of paintings, assemblages, handmade books, and ephemera, clearly something must have clicked there. A night or two in the Wichita clink was a rite of passage for an Eisenhower-era head full of jazz, bennies, and reefers. So was bailing for the Bay Area at the age of twenty-six.

By the time Branaman arrived in San Francisco—in 1959, after art classes in Guadalajara, and a month spent dropping peyote in Big Sur with Joan and William “Billy Batman” Jahrmarkt (of the short-lived but influential Batman Gallery)—his fellow Kansas transplants McClure and Bruce Conner had already founded the Rat Bastard Protective Association (RBPA), a loose sodality of painters, poets, and musicians, many of whom shared space in Painterland, an expansive warren of studios on Fillmore Street that served as clubhouse and epicenter to the burgeoning cadre of young experimentalists. The nearby Batman and poet Robert Duncan hosted exhibitions by Branaman and his fellow Rat Bastards, including Jay DeFeo, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Jean Conner, Wallace Berman, George Herms, and others.

Branaman’s solo show at Karma featured work from that seminal period, including an enigmatic untitled, semiabstract self-portrait from the early 1960s that was also shown in last year’s RBPA exhibition at the Landing in Los Angeles, in which the artist’s eyes gaze out from a surface stippled by a vomitous fog of earthy oranges and oily, mauve-toned browns. Another small, untitled painting on wood from the same period was encrusted with a surging riptide of dirty blistering blue and dull, gray-black oil-paint globs. A vivid crimson crescent encircling a small hole in the painting’s dense surface gives the impression of a scar.

But much of the best was yet to come for “Barbitol Bob,” and this exhibition was stuffed with the evidence. There were his handmade books, collaged with sexual and quasi-devotional imagery. A cover on one read WE ARE ALL BUDDAHS: If Mr. Branaman has any hang-ups at all, spelling isn’t one of them. (Branaman has long practiced Tibetan meditation and was for a time apprenticed to the late Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche, whom he describes as “the Dalai Lama’s rainman—he could make it rain.”) There were also drawings and publications from the artist’s underground-comic peers, including poet, publisher, and fellow ex-Kansan Charles Plymell. Plymell, whose neglected 1971 novel The Last of the Moccasins rested on a table alongside a copy of William Burroughs’s Tornado Alley (1981) amid other Beat ephemera, printed Branaman’s echt-psychedelia comics six years before releasing the first issue of Robert Crumb’s now infamous Zap Comix in 1968. And finally there were Branaman’s assemblages: hybrid paintings that mix messy collage with carving, plasterwork, and silk-screened imagery. Family Tree, an oil on wood and plaster produced between 1979 and 1991, incorporates all of these techniques and materials into a complex, multilayered ensemble dense with art-historical and pop-culture riffs, its found imagery pasted over an abstract painting whose canvas the artist carefully cut in places, leaving sections in tatters but still held together by threads, its visual effect more beaded curtain than jail bars.

A raw, open eroticism ran through the show, a tantric insistence on wedding the sacred to the profane. And old habits and preoccupations die hard: Among the most recent work on display was a “wanted” poster featuring the artist’s aunt Sally and grandma Younger, whose kin rode with Frank and Jesse James. “I’m doing a whole series about that,” he says. “That I come from gangsters.”

Alexander Keefe