Bradford Kessler
Become Gift, Sky Become Shadow

September 20 – November 3, 2019
Opening Reception September 20, 6- 9pm

Bradford Kessler’s exhibition, Become Gift, Sky Become Shadow, draws its main source from Victor Flemming’s film The Wizard of Oz. In the original 1939 edition, a dark figure swings in the backdrop of the enchanted forest for a brief shot. The official explanation by MGM Studios was that the anomaly was a large bird on loan from the Los Angeles Zoo, but in fact another story emerged, the shadow was the hanging body of a munchkin. The figure would later be masked with the scenic blue of the sky thus repairing the broken 4th wall.

If we take Oz as a prototypical American myth ripe with narrative that reflects and reflexes the issues of prewar society, we can draw a multitude of critical conclusions. Dorothy as an American youth initiate and hero, the citizens of Oz’s populist hysteria and institutional worship and the new age awareness informing free thought after the “unmasking” of the Wizard. No matter the implications, the story’s protagonist always reinforces the ideation of redemption and virtue of the individual. Entering the exhibition, the viewer begins a similar journey. However, we are transcended into abjection as Kessler elucidates an anthropomorphic forest draining the filmic phantom of it’s shadow and the route begins to excavate pop-cultural conspiracy and childhood memories, offering a mode of associations rooted in deviance, loss, anxiety and social repair.

This framework contains dual subjects, one localized in the on-set reality of a dream world and the other derived from personal recollection. As a child, the artist discovered a group of bird hatchlings sprawled across his asphalt driveway in the sweltering heat of a Kansas summer. Innocents tossed from one world to another; in response to their traumatic display of suffering, euthanasia was exacted. The event finds its residual reconstruction in Kessler’s winding basement work, Sky Become Shadow. Here at the end of the path, we view a child-sized baby bird laying motionless through the bolted windows of a brightly lit execution chamber. The bird —ever the symbol of new consciousness or spirit—is strapped between the past and a contemporary intersection of ethics, collective trauma, nihilism and manic aspiration. In a sensory note evoking the performative strategies of Mike Kelley and Bruce Nauman, a yellow phone rings endlessly. The sound plays foil, marking an out-of-reach resolution—definitively articulating all power outside of the self, a stark and antithetical position to western virtue and destiny.

The hope, pathos, and philosophy of the heroine Dorothy’s coming of age journey toward the heavenly city are cut out. One can imagine an amphetamine-riddled Judy, skipping merrily down the road, driven to make her next mark. To enjoin Kessler’s dialogue one must ‘grow down’ like the Wicked Witch and acknowledge something amiss in adulthood, not only with aspirational entertainment but also with the American psyche and the nature of intentionality and mythmaking itself.

-Wills Baker

Bradford Kessler (b. High Plains, Kansas, 1982) lives and works in New York. Kessler has had solo shows at 15 Orient, Brooklyn, Valentin, Paris; Ashes/Ashes, Los Angeles; and 247365, New York. Group shows include MonCheri, Brussels; False Flag, Queens; Springsteen, Baltimore; and Witte de With, Rotterdam. His work has been reviewed in Modern Painters, Mousse, CURA, Flash Art, Dis, Vulture, and The New York Times.

Wills Baker is an independent curator and scholar based in New York.

Press for exhibition: Brooklyn Rail, Art in America