The Changing Painting: Interview with Dove Bradshaw, Part 1

In anticipation of her installation of her work Contingency on Wall at the Phillips, artist Dove Bradshaw sat down with Phillips blog manager Amy Wike to discuss her artistic process.

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Dove Bradshaw installing Contingency on Wall (2016) at the Phillips. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Amy Wike: I thought we would begin with you describing your creative process. Generally speaking, from the inception of an idea, how do you begin; what does your creative process look like?

Dove Bradshaw: Wow! What a question. Nearly every idea comes in a different way. For instance, let’s talk about the piece I’m doing here, and how I got the idea . . . In 1984, I covered works on paper with silver leaf and then painted and poured this chemical, liver of sulfur, on it to create phenomenological kinds of images having to do with the topography of the paper; [for example] if it was handmade paper it was rough, it would pool, and so on. And the piece that I’m doing here is a mural. The first time I thought of the idea was in 1988, where I was re-creating an installation of twenty years before Plain Air . . . I had decided to put on the wall rectangles of plaster and of silver leaf. In the end, I didn’t execute it in that piece but that was when I conceived of it and did it later in my studio, my home. And the piece I’m doing here has no chemical, it’s just a skim coat of plaster, then gesso, varnish, and silver leaf, and I leave the leaf to sulfurize in the air. Light, air, humidity, all affect silver. So in the course of a year, you’ll see the changes. The longer it’s up, folks at the museum, the longer you’ll see the changes!

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Dove Bradshaw installing Contingency on Wall (2016) at the Phillips. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

AW: That leads nicely into another question I have, which is: do you ever consider a work finished?

DB: Yeah! Yeah I do. William Anastasi (with whom I have lived with for four decades) titled a whole series of works Abandoned Paintings with Willem de Kooning‘s notion that paintings are never finished, they’re merely abandoned, in mind. However, I do finish work. Unlike writing; I find that you can come in and tweak it, tweak it and tweak it, right? . . . . In painting, I find, rarely do I want to come back and change something.

AW: You’ve worked a number of different mediums and forms—performances, stage design, sculpture—how do these all relate to each other? You did just speak quite well to that, do you have any other examples of that kind of cross-reference in your very different mediums?

DB: Well when I worked for sets, costumes, and lighting with Merce Cunningham, the first piece I used I was influenced by Mondrian. He believed that color should be integrated into architecture not as a decorative element, but as an essential element to the structure and the movement. I thought that this would be great for dance, of course, and by coincidence, there happened to be fourteen different colors in Wall Work II, 1943-1944, where the primaries were on colored cardboard squares of different sizes. There were fourteen dancers in Merce’s company, so it was perfect, it seemed as though the pasta had fallen on the sauce. And so I thought, “Merce will be in grey and the dancers will all be in color.” It made a beautiful pattern; at any moment on the stage, there could be a cluster of five red and one primary blue and mix it up, or just a couple of white accents, and so on.

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Dove Bradshaw installing Contingency on Wall (2016) at the Phillips. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

And then after that was my own work, I would transfer whatever I would be thinking of at the moment to a set design. Most notably in Fabrications I had one where I had . . . an inner ear valve and intestines which looked very beautiful because they were a diagram, two spirals, and I had the dancers in [their colored] dresses. The dresses…were in silk and so the swirl of the dresses connected to the spirals of those intestines.

Encounter with an Effigy

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Installation view of Annette Messager’s Mes petites effigies (My Little Effigies) (1989-90). Photo: Rachel Burley

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Detail, Annette Messager’s Mes petites effigies (My Little Effigies) (1989-90). Photo: Rachel Burley

One of my favorite rooms at The Phillips Collection is the gallery just to the right of the entrance that’s currently displaying recent acquisitions. The large, open room is full of interesting pieces that remind me how revolutionary art can be, and how avant-garde the masterpieces in the permanent collection were in their own time. Currently hanging on the right wall is one of Annette Messager’s captivating installations, Mes petites effigies (My Little Effigies). I have to admit that I did not initially approach this work with any critical art historical eye, but instead was drawn to it because the hanging animals reminded me of the Beanie Babies collection I had when I was young. As I moved toward the installation to study it closer, however, all juvenile connections fell away. Although not without humor, it elicits quite a somber mood. 13 stuffed animals, holding 13 framed body parts, hang on brown string in front of 13 framed and handwritten letters. Colorful dogs, bears, cats, and even hugging otters present black and white photographs of eyes, noses, mouths, and the backs of knees. They can’t help but seem like portraits, especially when the framed writing behind them announces what they are—hesitation, confusion, obstacle, reconciliation.

What is exceptional about Messager’s installation is how quickly and powerfully it engages the viewer’s imagination. Who are these effigies to her? And who might they be to me? The unexpected visual cues inspire endless interpretations, which is the mark of great art.

Rachel Burley, Marketing & Communications Intern

5 Things Helen Frederick’s Acts of Silence Can Teach You About Museum-Going

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Installation view of Helen Frederick’s Acts of Silence Intersections contemporary art project

Museums can sometimes be considered intimidating spaces, complete with a flurry of visitors, pristine paintings, and immaculate sculptures. But venture into the galleries and there’s much to be gained. Today we look at Helen Frederick’s Acts of Silence as an example of how each and every exhibition has something to offer museum-goers; it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.

  • 1) Keep calm and carry on
    Frederick, an artist and printmaking professor at George Mason University, makes a habit of contemplative papermaking. As she explains in an early essay, hers is a storied process of interacting with materials, textures, and overlays to create paper produced by hand. This same reflective mindset is useful in approaching museums—taking time to consider and experience the quietude of the works on view.
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Trees Darker Than the Night, 2015. Two pulp painting (42 x 22 in. each) and three solar prints (14.5 in. diameter each)

Sudip Bose echoes this in a review of Johannes Vermeer paintings at the National Gallery of Art, in which Bose writes that pensiveness has given way to the blockbuster and calls into question the value of an enriching museum experience. What Bose drives home is that for artwork in general, and works by Vermeer in particular, each piece should be a study in quiet reflection rather than rushed consumption.

  • 2) Mix up your media

    Too often, exhibitions pigeonhole visitors into one media over another. Frederick’s Acts of Silence stands in contrast to this, encouraging viewers to explore works of varied textures, values, and aesthetics to get at the core of the installation’s themes – those of the environment and longevity. Frederick’s Extinguish, for instance, elevates the warfare debate, displaying each piece on handmade paper (a nod to nature in a world of artificiality).

It’s a concept worth mulling over. What effect does one media have over another? Surely texture plays a pivotal role. In fact, the Museo del Prado now includes 3-D printed masterworks for blind visitors to the museum—a move indicative of the experiential nature of depth, texture, and media.

  • 3) Lean in
    Equally important on your next museum visit is taking in the works on view at close range as well as at a distance. Frederick’s exhibition at the Phillips serves as a prime example, drawing visitors into the installation’s second room with a series of paintings that, from afar, appear to represent an empty field at sunset, but upon further inspection, reveal themselves as complex studies of light and tone. The next time you’re in a museum, try viewing works at a distance as well as up close to see what, if any, changes can be detected. What do those subtleties tell you about the work?
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Helen Frederick, Acts of Silence (still), 2015. Sound and video projection over primordial forest imagery, Voice: Helen Frederick; Video collaboration: Sean Watkins; Photo credit: Matt Nolan

Stephanie Herdrich, assistant research curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes this to a new level, harnessing Instagram to zero in on the minute, yet terrifically dazzling, details of the institution’s works. Much like quiet contemplation, experimenting with different levels of detail can bring to life nuance you might otherwise miss.

  • 4) Compare and contrast
    Another concept to think through on your next museum visit is how the works on view fit into a broader cultural context. In particular, what parallels can you draw between the selected works and those of comparable theme from a different time period or region? At the Phillips, Frederick’s works are displayed alongside Morris Graves’s, an abstract expressionist whose oeuvre captures the Pacific Northwest in its rawest beauty. In its second room, Acts of Silence brings this to bear, juxtaposing Frederick’s tonal works with Graves’s seabird compositions.

Gillian Daniel draws similar parallels on her Fash of the Titans Instagram feed, pairing classical art work with today’s high fashion. The unlikely juxtapositions reinforce the value of reflective study to glean new meaning from an exhibition’s selected works.

  • 5) Share your own interpretations
    Frederick’s Acts of Silence also encourages viewers to interpret the works on view in their own way. An earlier blog post tackles just this in its survey of the many ways viewers have interacted with the series, effectively adding their mark to the collection online.

Appropriately, many exhibitions now feature signature hashtags. One question to ask yourself in looking through submitted photos is what works inspired the most photos? Why do you think that is? The Getty Museum’s #GettyInspired series celebrates the nuance visitors add to a museum’s collection.

Museums, then, offer visitors a moment of quietude, layers of meaning, new perspectives, cultural nuance, and the opportunity to share in novel ways. Armed with these five tips, your next museum visit is sure to be an inspired one.

Angelica Aboulhosn, Marketing & Communications Volunteer