David Bradshaw and William Burroughs Blast Off
Blasting artist David Bradshaw is the uncle of gallerist Kurt Kolok. Giuliano photos.
This former piano was recently targeted as a work of art.
Laurie Andreson produced the design for this metal sculpture shot by Bradshaw and Burroughs.
Kolok Gallery Presents Explosive Art
David Bradshaw: Stranger (Xenos)
121 Union Street
North Adams, Mass
413 664 7381
July 7 to 26, 2006
By Charles Giuliano
July 12, 2006
The current exhibition of works by the Vermont based artist, David Bradshaw, several in collaborations with artist/writer, Williams Burroughs, as well as Laurie Anderson and Robert Rauschenberg represent a big bang for the very new but remarkably ambitious Kolok Gallery in North Adams. This is the third show, July 7-26, of a fast track season with an opening scheduled every three weeks. It is what one expects during the quick turnover of the Southern Berkshire tourist season but so far this is a bit of a stretch for Northern Berkshire County. While Mass MoCA, just steps away from Kolok Gallery, is a destination, so far, little or any of that audience has spilled over to hard scrabble North Adams. There is optimism about change and progress but that appears to be happening in agonizing increments. Significantly there were small but enthusiastic turnouts for the back to back openings last weekend at the Eclipse Mill, a short walk from Kolok Gallery, on Friday night, and at Kolok on Saturday. Part of the problem is the utter lack of media coverage.
With this remarkable exhibition gallerist Kurt Kolok has pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
The artist, who is known and widely respected among major artists, but who dropped out years ago and rarely exhibits, is an uncle of the dealer. So this show is a real coup and of more national and international than just local interest. The artist last showed in New York at 530 Canal Street in 1991 but was covered by Art in America. Recently, Bradshaw, who specializes in target shooting and demolition as an art form, demolished a piano given to him by his nephew. The riddled remnant is a centerpiece of the show. Writing about the event in Art in America (December 2005) critic Jill Johnson stated that “His great piano shootout was perhaps his rip-roaring way of saying he was back…”
Back from what one might ask? Talking with the tall, well conditioned, rugged looking, straw hated, middle aged artist there was a slow drawling Clint Eastwood Americana about him. Every question came with a long, punctuated, fascinating but overly detailed even rambling stories. It was more the kind of hunker down by the fireside in the wilderness sipping Jack from tin cups kind of pace rather than the wham bam pitter patter of gallery openings when this writer routinely ravages a few hungry morsels to flesh out a review. But Bradshaw is definitely the kind of person you would want to get to know and hang out with. The kind of fascinating life and adventure that begs to be turned into an indie film.
Things were just getting good for the artist who was born in 1944 and moved to New York in 1967. In 1969 his friend Robert Rauschenberg initiated a studio visit by the legendary art dealers, Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend. He was making experimental, abstract, unstretched canvases which he had shown at the Douglas Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia. She offered him a show but he was already moving away from that work. She insisted he continue to produce the series in order to be shown in her gallery. For any careerist artist it is an offer you cannot refuse. He did. It says a lot about him that he walked away from such an opportunity and its brush with fame and possible fortune. So I guess that’s what Jill Johnson means by “back.” While Bradshaw lost interest in the art world apparently it didn’t entirely loose interest in him. He continued to do experimental work but far from the mainstream.
In 1969 his girlfriend, Deborah Hay, a Merce Cunninghman connected dancer and choreographer, asked for his help to break up a log jam on the ice and lumber clogged Winooski River that threatened to flood the surrounding countryside including the property of her brother. Bradshaw purchased dynamite at a local hardware store, and never having done this before, blasted the logs some of which shot up 90 feet into the air. He broke up the log jam in more ways than one. Blasting became an art form. Initially there was no product or commodity it was purely an event or happening. Back in the city he asked Rauschenberg for the loan of his Arriflex 16 mm camera. For the next year he created art films such as “Steve Paxton Throwing Dynamite” “Shooting Shit” and “Passing By.” He showed this work to Ileana but she was not impressed. Eventually he mastered the intricacies of the medium well enough to be hired for the occasional demolition gig. He described some of this work to me. Adding that he feels comfortable with dynamite but “fireworks scare the crap out of me.”
He is also a master marksman particularly with fast draw pistols. He started by making zip guns to defend himself from street gangs growing up in DC. It was this interest that got him hooked up with the Beat writer Burroughs. They had met in 1967 when Bradshaw squatted in the studio apartment of a fellow art school dropout, David Prentice. They were living in a commercial building the Atomic Machinery Exchange on Canal Street where Burroughs also had a pad at the time. Despite some 40 years difference in age the young artists hung out drinking at Max’s Kansas City with the often laconic writer.
During a 1981 visit to Austin, Texas Bradshaw connected with Burroughs who was delivering a guest lecture at the University of Texas. He invited him to go target shooting with a custom made Smith and Wesson pistol which had been presented in recognition of his marksmanship. They both realized the potential for shooting as an art form and not just a sport. Burroughs had famously shot his wife in an absurd game of William Tell. It was judged to be a tragic accident and not manslaughter or homicide. But Burroughs continued to be fascinated by firearms and the two began to make work together. Burroughs embraced and expanded the potential of the medium in his own work. For the Kolok show there are several objects, including a metal eye based on a design by Laurie Anderson, that they shot and signed together.
Just as he did as a teenager in DC Bradshaw still talks about packing heat as self defense. Particularly during time spent in New Orleans, a dangerous and violent city, where he lived and recently returned to post Katrina to see for himself the devastation. This led into a detailed description of the ecology of the delta, its maddening flatness, and the fact that speculators and developers had messed with the cycles of nature by draining and building on wet land which had previously served as an overflow and buffer against floods. That the Crescent City, which he believes should be rebuilt, was an accident waiting to happen. But he also described in grim detail how the gators, yet again, are the true survivors and that he has enormous respect for these exquisite, ancient creatures. So much so that he will no longer hunt and let his dogs loose in the bayou. Too dangerous.
In the center of the gallery was an example of sculptures in steel which he makes by blasting. They have an action oriented minimalist appeal. In a sense they are ultimately American works. The works are about the release of energy which serendipitously rips into shape and forms naturalistic sculptures in an act of blasting, a big bang sculpture. He also makes aluminum pieces which he states “sell better because they are lighter and easier to handle.” I asked if post 9/11 and Homeland Security it had become more difficult to work with explosives. This launched a political discourse about how the Mounties in Canada and the FBI in Florida had recently set up radicals by selling them explosives. The bad guys have their own sources while the good guys and honest people are denied access. You wonder how long he can continue to make explosive work without running into a logjam.
Simply put Bradshaw is one of those important and fascinating artists you never heard of. Soon to be a book (let’s hope) and major motion picture. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Who else. Just as easily it may not happen and he will slip back into the shadows, AKA, Vermont. Are you a hippy, I asked? He smiled and shrugged it off. But that’s another story. It was time for more wine and cheese which is what you do at openings. But some day I sure would like to sit around the campfire and swap tales sippin jack from tin cups. Long as the guns ain’t loaded. Dy-no-mite. Y’all.
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