Los Angeles artist Bradford J. Salamon paints junk.
An accomplished portraitist, his move to create likenesses of things such as old toys, faded technology and the detritus we toss in the can when it starts to misbehave is the artist's Proustian elegy to time passing. It makes a certain sense that if we capture the image of living people because beauty is fleeting, then his paintings of rubbish, cracked at the edges and faded with time are just as important for the revelry they induce. Just as the French author rocketed into the past over a madeleine dipped in tea, Salamon holds insignificant pieces of popular memory up to the light as a way of holding onto our collective history.
Following his recent 20-year survey in Santa Monica at the California Heritage Museum, a handful of his paintings currently on view at Sue Greenwood Fine Art in Laguna Beach, as well as "California Masters: Bradford J. Salamon" showing now at the Hilbert in Orange, the artist is on something of a streak. The Hilbert has just a few of his pieces in its gallery, but it's a good introduction to former Huntington Beach resident Salamon's work. Well-curated with short, sweet, informative notes by the museum's director, Mary Platt, the paintings take up five small sections of the museum—and leave you wishing for more.
Beginning with the life-size C3PO from Star Wars, arguably one of the most sentimental pop-culture touchstones, Salamon captures the prissy gold droid's bug-eyed glance, shoulders thrown back, arms open, the stiff figure's spine in a slight curve. Despite the accomplished painting, highlights of the gold suit heightened by tints and shades of yellow and white to suggest the armor bouncing light, this image doesn't seem worthy of Salamon's talents. It's eye-catching and stops us, moving us to look, but we've been inundated with this corporate creation. Returning in the next film in the series this December, there's zero fear he will be lost to history any time soon.
Like a Brechtian theater production that doesn't pretend to be real life, Salamon goes to great pains to remind us that his canvas isn't a photograph. Skilled enough to be photo-realistic, the artist gives us visible brushstrokes and scratched surfaces throughout his work. No perfect painting is allowed here, the artist scraping thin, horizontal lines into the abstracted background, swiping a brushful of gray from the background and smearing it lightly over the edge of what might otherwise be a perfected image. Case in point: The corner of a red palm tree-decorated paper boat holding In-N-Out Fries. The burned tips and variant yellows and browns give the greasy potato strips texture until Salamon's paintbrush blurs through those details, suggesting a remembrance of fries past now fading into a cholesterol-clogged artery.
Likewise, 1954 Emerson Radio, What? Me Worry? and Disneyland Vintage 1960 all evoke their associations with our personal histories. Music, voices, advertising jingles . . . all come rushing back when looking at the radio painted from Mark Hilbert's collection of vintage receivers, the model sitting on a shelf next to its painting. Salamon elevates the equipment, lighting it as if it's a holy thing, each glow differentiating the minute ridges of the black dials. The gap-toothed grin of Mad Magazine's idiot anarchist mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, brought me back to the periodical I'd faithfully buy as a kid, the distance I'd walk to the drugstore, the small change I'd drop on the counter, the movie parody on the front, the smell of ink from the print inside and its foldable back cover.
His Disneyland canvas brings with it E-tickets, live mermaids on the submarine ride, Chicken of the Sea tuna sandwiches on the pirate ship, and pack mules. Trapped in a nicotine haze reflective of a certain air quality once common in Southern California, there's nary a bit of blue sky in sight. The abstract Matterhorn in the background, recognizable despite its representation as a blot of gray and white on the right side of the canvas, balances the retro sign in the middle, as a tree branch encroaches on the picture from the left.
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The scratchy gray-wash backdrop, slapped over a more vibrant underpainting, is clearly designed to make the subjects pop out against its blandness, but the messy, erased chalkboard of a background is also an effective metaphor for the cloudiness of recollection. An amorphous netherworld, it's a place where bright images suddenly appear, briefly glowing and glistening, while the thick fog swirling around behind them and on either side, threatens to swallow up and disappear the memory.
"California Masters: Bradford J. Salamon" at the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University, 167 N. Atchison St., Orange, (714) 516-5880; www.hilbertmuseum.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Feb. 7, 2018. Free.