David Bradley: Icon of contemporary Native American painting

Contemporary Native American painting is my favorite category of art. I collect contemporary Native American painting myself and if I could curate a museum focused on any genre, that is what I’d choose.

People often ask me as a white person why I’m so interested in Native American painting? Why I write so much about Native American art? While I’ve always been attracted to Indigenous perspectives on life, particularly humanity’s symbiosis with nature, I respond by saying, simply, “I love the work.”

My support of Indigenous artists isn’t fueled by white guilt or social justice or any misguided attempt at pretending to be Native myself, it’s fueled by the work. To me, T.C. Cannon, Earl Biss and Tony Abeyta are the equals of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Keith Haring. The agenda behind my continual highlighting and promotion of Native American artists is to see them reconfigured within American art history, not ghettoized as some separate thing “out West” or in the past, but standing side-by-side with the Pollock’s and Warhol’s in East Coast art museums and at auction. That’s where they belong. Their work has earned that.

Painter and sculptor David Bradley (Minnesota Chippewa; b. 1954, Eureka, CA) long ago established himself as one of the foremost contemporary Native American artists. Bradley is best known for incorporating humor and overt political messaging into his work – two themes running throughout contemporary Native American painting.

Humor, in fact, is a deep and constant thread across Indian art.

Think of the trickster – rabbit, coyote and raven. The trouble they get themselves into. Think of the Pueblo clown Koshare in pottery and katsinas, most closely associated with the Hopi. Koshare’s pratfalls are designed to teach lessons about how to live a respectable life.

The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe organized an exhibition highlighting humor in Native art production in 2019. David Bradley, naturally, was included in the show.

David Bradley, “Enchanted Mesa,” signed lithograph 95/100. Image 22 x 30; framed 26.75 x 34.25.
David Bradley, “Enchanted Mesa,” signed lithograph 95/100. Image 22 x 30; framed 26.75 x 34.25.

Wyld Gallery online and in Austin, TX has three fine David Bradley limited edition signed lithographs. My favorite is this landscape. Referred to in the art world as “prints and multiples,” lithographs, serigraphs, screen prints, linocuts, wood block prints and the like are a great way for collectors of modest means to acquire quality pieces by A-list artists.

I’ve done this. My favorite artist is Earl Biss. Even a small Biss oil-on-canvas, 1-of-1, painting costs $20,000. Unattainable for me. A large, framed, signed, limited edition serigraph of his, however, can cost less than $5,000. The Earl Biss artwork I have in my home is a serigraph.

Wyld Gallery’s David Bradley lithographs cost $2,000. His original oil paintings and sculptures are found in museums NFS – not for sale – or in galleries and auctions pushing and exceeding five figures.

Bradley also engages with art history in his paintings. James McNeil Whistler’s Mother, Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy, Warhol. He does so in a humorous, often political, fashion.

Bradley comes about his politics honestly. He grew up in Minneapolis and on the White Earth Ojibwa Reservation in Chippewa, Minnesota. As a young man, he traveled to Central America with the Peace Corps, living in Guatemala with the Mayan Indians for nearly two years. He helped a legal campaign against artists falsely claiming to be Indigenous. He’s a participant and witness to the stereotypes, injustices and policies his artwork comment upon.

Bradley’s painting style is often referred to as “narrative folk.” “Narrative” obviously comes from the inherent storytelling of his artwork. I have a problem with “folk,” however.

“Folk” is a loaded phrase in the art world, typically used to describe untrained/self-taught, less technically skilled artists. Bradley graduated first in his class with a degree in fine arts from the Institute of American Indian Art. He is the first artist to win the top awards in both the painting and sculpture categories at Santa Fe Indian Market.

The “folk” label comes from his representational, two-dimensional, flat painting style and its every-man appeal, but it’s dismissive of his talents and intention. It would be akin to calling Keith Haring a cartoonist or assuming Andy Warhol couldn’t paint because he chose screen printing as a favored medium. Bradley paints the way he does because he chooses to, not because any lack of talent prevents him from employing greater dimension or more accurate realism.

David Bradley is one of the essentials of contemporary Native American painting.

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

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