Frank Bramblett’s mysteries and miracles at the Woodmere Museum

[Diana sees Frank Bramblett’s exhibit and writes about his artmaking process, which involves sets of rules that both guide his discovery and lead to a diverse body of work. On Saturday, April 25 at 3 pm, artist Donna Nelson and art historian Gerald Silk will host Conversation: On Frank Bramblett. The talk is $15 for nonmembers, and $10 for members. — the artblog editors]

The essence of Frank Bramblett’s artistic achievement is the protean nature of his imagination. As one walks from room to room in the Woodmere Museum, where the exhibition Frank Bramblett: No Intention is currently on view, it is almost impossible to believe that the explosive constellation of his work is by the same artist.

Bramblett’s paintings are eclectic and derive their inspiration from art history as well as contemporary movements. He makes them his own through the connections that he perceives. In an interview, he commented, “Everything I do has to do with how things connect.”


Rules and revelations

His paintings range in every conceivable direction: style, tone, subject matter, materials, and process. They evince a dynamic tension between the discipline of the rules he imposed on himself in his so-called “logic paintings” and his commitment to spontaneity and invention. Rules have governed his work since his early “scrap paintings” in the 1970s, which regulated his gestural responses in paint to the color and grain of discarded scraps of wood.

"Rose/Black," 1979, by Frank Bramblett (Courtesy of the artist); photograph by Rick Echelmeyer.
“Rose/Black” (1979), by Frank Bramblett (courtesy of the artist). Photograph by Rick Echelmeyer.

The minimalist, totemic form of “Rose/Black” (1979; acrylic paint and marble dust on mahogany lath) represents a kind of culmination of this series. Seven feet tall, this totemic hybrid of painting, sculpture, and found object both illustrates and justifies the “rules”.

Bramblett explains that he needs rules “to keep me on track…It gave me a way of having a system in place that eliminated the need for me to make decisions about what it [a painting]was going to look like.” Inherent in this explanation is also the reason why the show is subtitled No Intention. How can you have an intention if you regard art as a process of discovery? “Everything that you know doesn’t matter,” he says. “What matters is what you don’t know. So it’s the search and then the ultimate find…That’s what I see painting as being about.”


Whatever you see is right

"Tête-à-Tête," 1999, by Frank Bramblett (Courtesy of the artist); photograph by Rick Echelmeyer.
“Tête-à-Tête” (1999), by Frank Bramblett (courtesy of the artist). Photograph by Rick Echelmeyer.

Twenty years later, “Tête-à-Tête” (1999; mixed media, pigments, marble dust, and encaustic on panel) represents the evolution of Bramblett’s aesthetic and his technical virtuosity. To create the painting, he fashioned his own brush from a tool used to apply wallpaper paste. By drilling holes in it, inserting a dowel at the end, and not centering the brush, he acquired the ability to create the swirls that animate the painting and give it movement, while the thick impasto overlay creates a three-dimensional, interactive effect. It’s as if the “heads,” in their varied shades of pink, mauve, and rose, are moving in a private universe but also moving toward the viewer’s head.

But are they heads? Much of the power of this witty painting lies in its deliberate ambiguity, which illustrates Bramblett’s mantra of “no intention” as it relates to representation. As he states, “The image is always a deception of the anticipated illusion.” These organic forms are so richly allusive that they can be read not only as heads but as cells, fruits, breasts, roses, etc. In short, we don’t know what we’re looking at, and it doesn’t matter.

Bramblett’s view of meaning is that it’s relative and subjective: “What a painting means is different for everyone. To you, it means one thing; to me, it means another…Just because I created it doesn’t mean my meaning has to be more valid than your meaning…It only has meaning when someone’s eyes land on it and they apply their experiences and their exposures to that work for themselves.”


So this leaves us to be caught up in the mystery, or what Bramblett calls the miracle of art: “the belief in something existing that is fathomable, but not possible”. The swirls in this painting are a characteristic element in much of his recent work, and they are particularly striking in the monumental mechanical-pencil drawings “Wandering Wondering” and “Erasing Extinction”. But even when the swirls are not visibly present, the turbine effect underlies the composition of other later paintings, such as “Swallowing Clouds” and “”. As they invade our space, they draw us into their own.

Frank Bramblett: No Intention remains on view at the Woodmere Art Museum through June 21, 2015.

NOTE: This post has been corrected to clarify that Diana did not interview the artist Frank Bramblett for this piece. We regret the error.