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A Fresh Coat of Paint
April has been a big month for Mark Bradley-Shoup. In addition to winning the judges’ best of show award at the 4 Bridges Arts Festival, he received a grant supporting his studio work from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, funded by the estate of Lee Krasner, widow of iconic 20th-century painter Jackson Pollock.
Bradley-Shoup is best known for paintings of seemingly desolate structures. He paints airport taxiways, trucks, dumpsters, roofs, roads. He’s done a series of abandoned gas stations. His subjects do not just reflect an artistic inspiration. There is also a critique in these images.
“We are inhabiting space in way that is not necessarily of benefit to the human species,” he says. “Our gas pumps, our gas stations, our dumpsters, our port-a-potties—these things are hallmarks of a civilization a little bit out of balance.”
After seeing his paintings of these desolate artifacts of the industrial economy, people sometimes send him their own photos.
“They’ll say, ‘I saw this dumpster and I thought of you,’ which sounds insulting, but for me it’s a huge compliment.” he says. “It makes me feel like I’ve done a job of making people awake and aware of their surroundings.”
Most detail is removed as he abstracts these structures into flat blocks of color. “All the specificity and nuances—rust, mildew, stains—all that is stripped from them,” he says. “This thing is literally getting a fresh coat of paint. They are clean, pristine, almost vacuum sealed.”
By isolating and cleaning up such structures, he wants to push viewers to reevaluate these objects that normally receive so little thought.
“I’m very outraged by way we treat environment and space. This is kind of a cathartic process for me,” he says. “If I’m going to deal with these forms that are blight, I’m going to have to deal with them in way that’s poetic.”
There’s poetry in his images on several levels. The simplified shapes themselves walk a fascinating line between representation and abstraction, easily recognized but edging toward pure abstraction. The objects feel a bit like empty spaces, but there’s a strange warmth in how he colors his forms in laidback tones that are not quite found in nature.
In fact, he finds those colors in the paint departments of retail hardware stores, recreating them in the studio based on paint samples, and their absurd names become part of his critique of consuming and consumption. In “Sunday Times Gas Station and Spiny Sea Urchin,” he paints an old gas station in a white named for the paper of record, with a yellow-brown background that reminded someone in a paint company of a marine mollusk.
“Conifer Green and Niagara Mist” describes the color, respectively, of a guard shack and the blue sky behind it, suggesting a second landscape totally different from that of the painting.
“I love using a consumer color you can paint your kitchen in and assigning it to an icon of consumption like a dumpster,” he says. “It’s a playful way of dealing with a less-than-pretty subject.”
Despite the obsessive abstraction away from detail, he wants an image that connects with the viewer. Most images are painted over a rich red base layer. “It’s almost like blood. I want these things to have some form of life.”
Bradley-Shoup’s creative process begins with a photo, from a catalog of thousands he has taken. After he chooses one for a painting, it goes through two-to-four weeks of refining and simplifying in graphic design software. The simplified image is laboriously redrawn by hand on paper or panel, sometimes canvas. Then comes the taping. Every area of color is painted one color at a time, with the rest of the painting masked by painter’s tape. When the painted area dries, he pulls up the tape and does the same thing in another area. For tiny areas of color, he cuts the tape to size using an Exacto blade.
“I joke that anyone could do this process if they had the same obsessive-compulsive behavior I have,” he says. “No one wants to paint like this. I feel fortunate that way—it has such a distinctive look.”
All that taping generates a lot of used tape. And the irony isn’t lost on Bradley-Shoup.
“Here I am making paintings that address how we occupy space, the idea of consumer and consumption, the idea of waste,” he says. “Yet here I am with a process that has a lot of waste to it.”
And so, equally obsessively, he recycles the tape…sort of. Every time he untapes one masked area, he doesn’t throw the tape away. He just adds it to the gigantic tape ball he’s been creating for years.
“I can’t get rid of it,” he says. “I’m attached to it…sometimes literally, because it’s glued to my floor”—and to whoever touches it. “My son sat down in it and said, ‘This would make a great time-out chair, because you can’t get up.’”