Green Pay Master, 2019, 20 x 18 inches, oil on canvas (framed)
BRADFORD J. SALAMON: PAINT WHAT YOU KNOW, HOW YOU KNOW IT
By Peter Frank
Artists, traditionally, are known by their style(s). The manner in which an artist works, regarded effectively as a plethora of earmarks and automatic decisions, supposedly supports the artist’s “message” – although often enough by now, the manner is the message. In contemporary artistic practice, style and substance have not only converged, they have become contiguous. An artist like Bradford Salamon, however, resists – and certainly subverts – this notion of stylistic “branding.” Salamon utilizes his mastery of several approaches to representational painting, however closely those approaches might be related, to add depth and nuance to his images. But in exercising multiple manners – different strokes, you might say, for different folks – Salamon submits his skills to the task of interpretation, favoring the portrayal of his subjects, human and otherwise, over the assertion of his own artistic identity. Salamon does maintain an identity in this way, but it is an identity based on looking and feeling rather than deducing, oriented towards conveying his responses to things, not primarily on characteristics of artistic practice. In other words, in painting what he sees, Salamon paints according – that is, in direct response -- to what he sees.
This is hardly to suggest that Salamon “has no style,” nor even that no consistent sensibility underlies his painting. Salamon’s touch, his feel for the application of paint, invariably betrays him. Whatever he is painting, and however he is painting it, Salamon renders his subjects with a rich brush and relatively muted palette. One can depend on a Salamon canvas to seem rich and yeasty, so effulgent and yet so matter of fact in its painterliness that it almost makes the mouth water. There is also a characteristic consistency to the way Salamon pictures his subjects, concentrating on single figures or objects (which in the more complex pictures serve as visual anchors) and molding them with great care. They seem not simply depicted but described. Further, Salamon’s subject matter is almost invariably mundane – and almost invariably dramatized by his treatment so that its most emotional elements emerge. Portraits, even when full-faced and flattened to a monochrome surface, capture the vivacity of the sitter, the essence of his or her appearance; objects, rendered larger than life, bloom with intimacy and nostalgia; indoor and outdoor spaces remain picturesque and inviting.
Meanwhile, each kind of subject matter is subjected to a markedly different handling, the focus of Salamon’s multi-stylistic virtuosity. Those spaces, normally populated with individuals, families, or other affinity groups paused while enacting some sort of (inter)personal drama, are painted with a localized (if still muted) palette and an oddly direct, flat-footed, almost naïf manner that recalls postwar New York School figurative painters such as Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, impressionist intimists who responded equally to natural light and the pathos of ordinary human life. Like theirs, Salamon’s naturalism relies as much on abstraction as it does on realism, yoking an energetic brushstroke to the things the eye sees.
Even as they pull us further into the house – into the kitchen, into the bathroom, into the tool closet, into the toy closet – Salamon’s “still lifes” take on a luminescence that his broader domestic scenes do not feature. It is a glow that seems almost to be the result of backlighting – or, perhaps more to the point, of the perceptual backlighting that memory lends to objects. These are emphatically unextraordinary things, but many are vintage and all seem touched by use. They’re not cracked and marred so much as smoothed and clouded, inflected with a post-modern sabe no wabe that regards nostalgia as sensate to the point of palpable. Carefully drawing them in paint, Salamon catalogs his devices with an eye to detail: edges, labels, the particular translucence of a kind of glass become conditions in themselves, as immaterial as tastes and odors, as substantive as the pigments used to paint them.
On one level, this is how Salamon approaches the human visage as well. But, sensitive as he may be to appearances, he is too much a humanist to preoccupy himself with superficial looks. In his portraits Salamon finds prominent factors in the sitter’s face to emphasize, not through caricature but through position and illumination. Even the most diffuse rendition of a face becomes a map of a unique terrain, notably distinct from anyone else’s. The “inner soul” great portrait painters are famed for finding, Salamon finds in the the particulars of a person’s features: he not only realizes, but demonstrates, that the soul is in the details. For the majority of his portraits, facial and full-figure, Salamon employs his most extravagantly painterly approach. Paint seems to rain down the canvas, and these human beings seem to emerge from the cascade, almost one with the froth. It is clear that Salamon’s touchstone here is Rembrandt; but his portraiture, constituting some of his understandably best known work, reflects on the entire history of portrait painting, from Velazquez to Hockney.
Bradford Salamon’s work demonstrates that the “real world” continues to present itself as a provocative subject. Indeed, it demonstrates how the observed world stays eternally fresh as an artistic concern. The artists who rely on it as a subject – or, more accurately, limitless source of subject – do so not because it is familiar but because it provides endless variation on what we think of as familiar, and challenges them to sample that variation. The domestic environment, brimming with objects and people, prompts the serious artist to find visual experience and contextual drama in it. And the serious artist rises to the occasion. Salamon rises to this occasion through a canny admixture of openness and calculation, a knowing manipulation of his natural gifts tempered by his natural response to his subjects. Just as Salamon’s embrace of painting is sensual and spiritual at once, his embrace of his subject matter is both spiritual and corporeal. His regard for the world is Whitmanesque in its breadth and its constant joy, and he subjects his considerable artistic skills to the vastness and diversity of that regard. Salamon employs several styles not simply because his subject matter requires it, but because his heart requires it.
Los Angeles May 2018