Intimidating sculpture

Some of Robert Brady’s art is big and bold—just don’t ask him what it means

“Nemeton” by Robert Brady.

“Nemeton” by Robert Brady.

Photo by David Robert

Take everything you’re going to read here with a grain of salt regarding what, exactly, works of art mean. Even the artist doesn’t really know.

“I just have a strong desire to make things,” says artist Robert Brady. “If I like it, I don’t have to know exactly what the hell it’s about.”

Robert Brady, a Reno native who now lives in Berkeley, Calif., has several kinds of works on display at Stremmel Gallery: a series of masks, a couple of collages and even a few life-sized bird sculptures, made predominately of straw and wire. Most prevalent in the collection, however, are the sculptures that depict larger winged creatures.

I approached these figures with reverence and care. While I might walk up to a painting and examine it with little regard for personal space, I approach sculpture—especially large sculpture—more tentatively, just as I might approach an intimidating stranger.

Most of the human-like figures are life-sized wood carvings, and all are distinctly female. I was immediately drawn to a winged creature titled “Flit.” She is suspended sideways from the wall in a fetal position. Her narrow face, with its slanted eyes and long, beak-like nose, is almost bird-like. Her wooden “hair” is knotted in a bun at the base of her neck.

But the creature’s most striking feature is her single, bright orange wing. “Flit” lies on her wingless right side, and her left wing is suspended over her. The appendage is startling in its largeness and its brightness; it makes her pale, thin body look frail and delicate in contrast. She looks almost as if she is cowering under the immense pressure of this single, magnificent wing. One can imagine her troubles; after losing a wing, the remaining appendage might seem to become, in fact, rather hateful in its uselessness. “Flit” seems all too aware that she will never fly again.

In contrast to “Flit,” another winged work, “Realm 2/6,” looks triumphant. Made of bronze and standing just over 7 feet tall, this figure seems poised for flight. One of her legs rests on a cylindrical pedestal, while the other is perched behind her. Her narrow body and head are similar to “Flit,” but both her wings are intact. These wings are long and narrow, running from her neck to her thighs, and are slightly folded. It looks as though she has been caught in a pre-flight run.

There is only one work in this collection that has no similar works, no sister sculptures. “Nemeton” is also the largest work of the collection: 66 nearly square (13 1/2 by 14 1/2 inches) tiles hang on a wall, almost touching one another. In front of the tiles, five ceramic heads sit on a bench.

Using oils, Brady applied pale colors—beige, yellow, lavender and baby blue—to the tiles, and the scenes depicted on the tiles differ only slightly in their level of abstraction. Some of the tiles have outlined figures: crouching men in black, veiled heads, a lampshade, a single eye. I stood before the tiles for several minutes before discerning many of these figures. It’s definitely a work you have to get to know; you have to be patient, to coax out all the hiding characters.

The heads, with wide noses and large mouths, are mostly clay-colored, but each has a patch of white. One has white smeared in front of its eyes; one has a block of white in front of its mouth, another has its entire face whitened, and so on. It seems as if they are being respectively blinded, muted and deafened.

Brady said that he thinks of the heads as being in a “fetal stage.”

“They’re emerging into the complete definition of a human figure, but they’re not quite there yet,” he said. “They’re coming into or receding from reality, from the here and now.”

But remember to take that with a grain of salt.