Literally, the first object that Berkeley-based artist Robert Brady made with clay changed his life. It was in his senior year of high school in Reno, Nevada, where he grew up. The art teacher handed Brady some clay and a rolling pin and told him to make something. "By the end of that period, I had absolutely fallen head over heels in love with clay. It was magic for me," he says. And from there, Brady, now 66, started on the path of life as an artist. He went on to study ceramics at Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts, after which he pursued a career as a potter. But he quickly found that to be unfulfilling.
"When I quit doing pottery," recalls Brady, "I became depressed about art and what it was for me." But a moment of inspiration flashed when Brady, who had started working as a house painter, read an article in Art in America. "One morning I got to the house I was painting," says Brady. "I make a cup of coffee and opened a magazine and there is an interview with Isamu Noguchi. It resonated so powerfully that---this is 8:15 in the morning--I got up, I wrote a note saying that I came but I had to go, and I'd be back tomorrow. I went home where I had two big barrels of clay stored, and I dived into that clay and turned all of it into objects that day. And not one thing was a pot. After about two years, I thought I was at a point where I could apply to graduate school."
Brady went on to earn his master's at UC Davis in 1975, working under renowned Funk artist Robert Arneson. And while Brady's graduate work was primarily abstract, shortly after graduation, he began focusing on the figure, which he's known for to this day. Also at that time, he began teaching a Sacramento State; a pursuit that lasted 33 years (Brady retired from teaching in 2009). For over a decade, Brady worked in ceramics. And then one fateful day, not unlike when he discovered clay, Brady found wood. "I needed to make a medicine chest for the bathroom," says Brady. "I had so much fun making that thing. The next day, I went to my friend's house and told him I was done with clay and that I was going to start working in wood." That was almost 30 years ago.
Today Brady is probably best known for his angular, lithe, rough-hewn wood sculptures (ties to Giacometti are easily made); a recent exhibition at Reno's Stremmel Gallery featured two over-eight-feet-tall sculptures of precariously "stacked" figures (think Cirque de Soleil), a couple of his "winged women"--a series Brady has returned to for years (this is a typical habit of the artist, to return to and build on series of works)--and some five-foot-long tribal shieldÐlike wood wall hangings; these showed with several other wood works, and some abstract ceramics, collages, and drawings.
As the variety in this show attests, Brady's work varies widely, but there are common threads that run throughout, the most prevalent of which is a primitive or tribal aesthetic. "My work seems connected to more tribal than Western culture," Brady says, "I don't try to it, but I can't strip it away; I was born in Nevada, so the earliest things I saw that I loved were Indian artifacts and crafts." This affinity to tribalism, wide-ranging output, interest in various media, and idiosyncratic aesthetic is reminiscent of Picasso, but Brady's folk-craft/outsider art aesthetic is distinctly Northern Californian, aligning him with the Funk movement and also with artists such as Frank Lobdell and Manuel Neri as well as ceramicists Peter Voulkos and Stephen De Staebler.
Beyond that, however, the influences are as broad as the work: "I am potentially influenced by anything and everything that's around me," says Brady. And certainly, the greatest common denominator in all of Brady's work is the artist himself.
"Robert Brady: Bearings Claimed" was on view at Stremmel Gallery, in Reno, NV. From March 8 -- April 7, 2012. www.stremmelgallery.com