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Brad Eberhard: abstract art and abstract thoughts

Brad Eberhard’s studio, in the garage of the Lincoln Heights house he shares with two friends, sits at the top of a narrow, perilously steep street, with a spacious view across what is, with all the winter rain, a vividly green hillside. A spare and comfortably tidy space, with a worktable, several shelves of books, a pair of vintage armchairs and an upturned milk crate coffee table, it is a congenial setting for an abstract painter with a taste for color and a propensity for philosophical inquiry.

There are two paintings hanging this day, both recently completed and waiting to be shipped to an art fair. They are around the same size — roughly 2 by 3 feet — and both easy to recognize as his: a bright, sharp palette; loose, jaunty forms; a lively spirit. Otherwise they have little in common. One is shallow, chunky and busy — he was thinking, he says, about tide pools — and dominated by shades of blue and yellow. The other is largely red and pink and calls to mind wet linens swaying in a strong wind.

Eberhard nods in their direction when explaining the title for his first solo show, at Tom Solomon Gallery near Elysian Park last spring, “As Different As Twins.”

“I’m getting over an insecurity about thinking that if you’re a rigorous painter then all your paintings look the same,” he says. “Like Peter Halley or late Mondrian or something. Thinking that art should begin with an idea and then there should be this investigation, like a scientist, of 15 nuances of that idea. Versus how I actually work, which is more process-oriented, visual and intuitive.”

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He works on five to 10 paintings and proceeds incrementally, adding layers of visual information — elements of color, form and line, various methods and brushstrokes — until compelling relationships begin to emerge. Some take a month or two, others up to a year or more.

“Each painting presents a logic,” he says. “It’s pretty odd and subjective, which results in paintings that look pretty different. That one’s kind of fast and geometric, this one’s crazy complicated and melty organic. And so the title was about reconciling to that difference or looking for a poetry of difference.”

At 40, Eberhard is tall and broad shouldered, an imposing physical presence, with an air of thoughtful detachment that can read as stoicism until he gets talking about something that interests him, at which point he tends to grow loose-limbed and animated. Raised in Anaheim, he went to art school a little later than most — he was 34 when he started at Claremont — after 13 years of teaching art in elementary and middle schools. Whether as a result of this real world experience or just by nature, he displays little interest in art world small talk and speaks of his work with a broad sense of perspective.

Entwined with his musings on color and form, for instance, come speculations about Plato, dualism and the limitations of consciousness.

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“There are all these binaries that come out of Platonic divisions,” he says, “like the ideal and the real, flat/depth, form/content. You know? I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to get past these binaries. Is this just me having a brain that has parameters? … I know that there are structures to reality. Like, someone could do radical body modification, but what does that mean? It means maybe they change their hair, get some tattoos. You can’t become a killer whale. Or a sphere.”

He points to several small collages he’s arranged on the work table, all made with classic educational flash cards. (His collage work — the subject of his second show at Tom Solomon, last fall — tends to run parallel to his painting practice.) He’s fascinated by the flashcard as a kind of Platonic form: the quintessential depiction of its subject.

“You look at that flashcard and — at least for me — I’m comforted by this great representation of a garden hose,” he says. “It’s almost like the world makes sense for a moment. So then, as a kind of tangent off the Platonic thing, I wonder whether you can make paintings that look so like paintings or so look like abstract paintings that there’s a moment of repose, a kind of wonder, a minor ecstasy, of just stopping and beholding.”

It’s not for Eberhard an ironic idea, a gesture of critical commentary, as when Richard Pettibone makes a painting that looks like a Warhol or Lichtenstein makes a painting that looks like a comic strip. What appears to interest him is the particular experience that the painting — not an object, as he describes it, so much as a bundle of human decisions, a “marshalling of resources” — is capable of engendering.

“You create this little situation in one frame,” he says. “You don’t have the time or the verisimilitude of film, you just have this one frame to make something that causes people to pause or be interested or feel something. And I think there’s beginning to be room, 50 years after Abstract Expressionism, to maybe, in small amounts, talk about feeling in art. Which is crazy.”

He points, by contrast, to the field of music, which tends to access emotion much more freely. It is a subject in which he has experience, being the lead singer in a rock band, Wounded Lion. (The band releases its first album in March.)

“I think somebody’s got to figure out how to talk about emotion in art in a way that’s not corny,” he says. “It’s a blind spot. You know how there’s this joke in physics: assume a frictionless universe? You can’t assume an emotionless viewer. It doesn’t exist.”

In talking to painters, one often has a sense of the draw to abstraction being as much moral or ethical as it is aesthetic, and it is no different with Eberhard. He’s not averse to representation, and indeed recognizable imagery does slip into his paintings from time to time, but there is an immediacy and an integrity of the process of abstraction that he clearly relishes. As he settles into the success of his first solo show and gears up for his next in the fall, this remains the driving principle.

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“There’s this Meyer Schapiro idea,” he says, referring to the late art historian, “It’s very old, but I think it’s relevant. He understood abstract painting as one of very few examples of undisenfranchised labor. Where you’re not in a factory. You’re not making propaganda for someone or doing some mindless modern-world task. It’s this very mindful, present activity. And I’m a romantic, I can’t differentiate myself from my humanism and my romanticism, but I want that to be the content, that to be meaningful.”

calendar@latimes.com


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