1.10 / Review

The Magnificent Seven: Harrell Fletcher

By Brady Welch March 10, 2010

The current exhibition at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts might at first seem like an artfully elaborate ruse. The scenario? A well-known artist is invited to present a solo exhibition, presumably of his or her own work. Said artist then cleverly uses the opportunity to present the work—a retrospective, no less—of another, completely different and fairly obscure artist. As it turns out, the mystery artist is a very real, albeit retired, printmaking professor, and “Selections from the Life and Work of Michael Bravo” is in fact selections from the life and work of Michael Bravo. Harrell Fletcher, the artist attributed to the show, is his former student and brother-in-law.

Now a teacher of Art and Social Practice at Portland State University, Fletcher is known for engaging with the works of others, often appropriating, borrowing, or showcasing preexisting work in his own projects. “The Life and Work” is a case in point, composed entirely of Bravo’s artwork, craft pieces, and collected ephemera. This physical absence of anything specific to Fletcher could be problematic; there is a sense that his practice is entirely curatorial at the expense of being strictly artistic. Fletcher, the logic goes, doesn’t produce anything but the show itself. Further, his expropriation of others’ work can seem uncomfortably patronizing.

All of this would carry more weight, however, if Fletcher’s work wasn’t so thoughtful and emotionally engaging. His captivation with those around him typically leads him to curious and fascinating outcomes, and this is precisely why “Selections from the Life and Work of Michael Bravo” is such an effective and fun portrait of a relentlessly creative individual.

Fletcher was a small child when Bravo married his older sister Sandra, and some of the strongest pieces in this show speak to an uncle-figure’s warm affection toward a young boy. This tenderness assumed the form of gracefully crafted toys, obviously of great importance to Fletcher, who includes the gifts in this show. Viewers are greeted by handmade wooden ships and airplanes and a gorgeous oversized mobile, replete with cutout sailboat, mallard, and a fish with its eye playfully popping out.

Toy Boat #2, 1967; wood; 38 x 19½ x 9½ in. Courtesy of the CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco.

Terry Man, 1982; lithograph; 22 x 30 in. Courtesy of the CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco.

Bravo and Sandra divorced when Fletcher was 10 years old, a fact that, for me anyway, strongly influences the exhibition's emotional tenor. Bravo vanished completely from the young artist’s life for the next eight years, until Fletcher enrolled at Humboldt State University where Bravo was then teaching.

The majority of Fletcher’s selections for “The Life and Work” reflect Bravo’s more formal practices of painting, sculpture, printmaking, and photography (he actually built three large-format cameras). Whether these works are considered “good,” as I've heard some question, is somewhat beside the point. This is an exhibition about one individual's fascination with and personal homage to another. Bravo's practice may not be suited for the pages of Artforum, but it does not aim to be. Although the formal works don’t possess the same emotional quality as some of the more biographical pieces in the “The Life and Work,” they have their own charm, speaking greatly to an art professor’s love for a variety of forms and materials.

For instance, Bravo has an odd fascination with human ears, and includes models of them in a number of his sculptural and painting pieces. He also has a thing for round objects, principally planets and heads, rendered in almost grotesque layers of paint and laminate. They’re not gross; they’re just weird. In one, an accompanying placard quotes Bravo’s description of the piece as a planet “with lots of stuff popping out of it,” and indeed, it sort of resembles the head of Medusa. Another oddball number is Bravo’s attempt to create a dictionary, and therefore a made-up language, based entirely on new three-letter words: Noy gub gal nex, anyone?

Other works are more demure. These include a stunning panoramic photograph of Pyramid Lake, north of Reno, Nevada, which Bravo shot with one of his large-format cameras. The placement of the photograph across the inward corner of two walls was a brilliant move, lending the photo added spatial depth and power.

Both Bravo and Fletcher received their MFAs from CCA, so “Selections from the Life and Work of Michael Bravo” is somewhat of a homecoming for two alumni who have made successful careers as artists. It is unclear whether this coincidence was intentional, but it adds another personal layer to a show rich with familial emotion. One man honors the other in an exhibition that, no matter what one might think of the strict merits of the work itself, is both touching and a wee disconcerting.


“The Magnificent Seven: Harrell Fletcher, Selections from the Life and Work of Michael Bravo” is on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco through April 24, 2010.


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