Too Short To Box With God
Words: James Whiting
Images: James Whiting
As his solo exhibition at the historic Los Angeles Athletic Club drew to a close, New York-based artist Bradley Ward and I were coincidentally both headed back to the East Coast. I was lucky enough to link up with Brad at his studio in Brooklyn right in the thick of finals week at Pratt, from where he’d soon be graduating. Amidst layers of test prints, rows of sneakers and the odd plant hanger made out of a Nike basketball, we discussed everything from relocating across the United States, transformations in process and of course, given the time of the year, the playoffs*.
JW: Did you come to New York specifically for Pratt or were you here beforehand?
BW: The first we came to NY, I was 16 on a school trip in the summer. I hated it – I didn’t understand why there were so many people here, and there was just too much going on. My best friend was shooting fashion week in 2014 though and he asked if wanted to come with. I was in the middle of my semester but I said ‘sure, I’ll go for like four or five days’. And when I came here the second time it was like the New York that I always wanted to see. I absolutely loved it.
When you start doing that, you start to halve yourself and you’re going to keep halving yourself–
JW: Was that because you were staying in different neighbourhoods each time?
BW: I was in a few different areas. Each time I came, I stayed longer. And at the I was taking pictures and making these magazines for the Independent Studies class at the end of my Undergrad. Since I moved here though I haven’t taken a single photo though. It’s either too much or I’d rather just see it. It’s a different feeling to when I was visiting back then compared to now that I’m here. When I was visiting I wanted to take in everything but now that I’m here…
JW: Do you think that was a result of the things you were seeing and what you wanted to articulate weren’t able to be held in a static photographic image, but instead you can draw from that experience within a broader studio practice?
BW: I think that since I was visiting, I was willing to spend more time outside and wait for something or to just try and engross myself. I do miss the act of taking photos because it’s amazing to see like what comes out, but in saying that, I can’t really say I ever considered myself a photographer. A lot of material we read in Grad school is about trying to make sure that your practice is something that is involved in your every day. So it’s not like you’re one person in the studio and somebody different outside, because when you start doing that you start to halve yourself and you’re going to keep halving yourself because you can’t find a certain way to like articulate all these things.
I think the hardest part of Grad school was in the first year – just getting over yourself and what you think you know… It’s really hard to accept the fact that you aren’t that good–
JW: Exactly – you’ve got to show up every day. You’ve got to make a practice ‘a practice’…
BW: And I think the hardest part of Grad school was in the first year – just getting over yourself and what you think you know. Because you, especially if you were really good at something during your Undergrad or whatever you were doing before you got here, it’s really hard to like accept the fact that you aren’t that good at it.
And I think it was the most important part.
JW: It seems everything you’re making has some kind basketball vein running deeply through it – did you grow up playing basketball?
BW: I grew up playing basketball and my sister who’s four years older than me – she was playing before I was and was always better than me. I played all the way through until the middle of my junior year of high school. But I didn’t quit because I wasn’t good.
I quit because my sister, she holds all these records at our high school and she tore her ACL at the end of her junior year and lost all these scholarships. I really liked basketball but really just wanted to play with my friends and just enjoy myself. I knew if I didn’t enjoy basketball and everything that came with it the way that she did then I probably didn’t love it that much.
That was kind of tough to deal with because it was like the thing that I kind of like associated with my identity for so long. So at the age of like 16 to 17, I had to ask myself ‘Okay, well like what am I good at, what do I like? And the only thing I’ve done longer than play basketball is draw, so I started taking a bunch of art classes at the end of high school and ended up at college for fine arts.
So fast forward to here at Pratt – I was still drawing, but one of my professors was urging me to like think outside of just like a piece of paper, pushing that it doesn’t have to be on a wall – it doesn’t have to be this flat thing. Then she told me to make something that’s really true to my experience and my identity. I remembered seeing this reference drawing that I think Michelangelo did with the head of David. At the same time, there was this picture of George Gervin from a game between the Lakers and the Spurs. They’re both looking up to get a rebound and it was the same lighting and the exact same type of composition. I took it to one of my professors and was showing all these different photos of sculptures and paintings and basketball photos.
They were like ‘I don’t get it. I don’t see it’. I just thought ‘Okay, maybe it doesn’t make sense’. But I kept seeing these photos, year in and year out. I kept seeing this thing but didn’t know how to articulate it.
JW: It gets quite interesting when you have to try to push through that kind of muddy water like, ‘alright, am I crazy and the only one that sees this or can I actually make someone else realize this as well?’
BW: Right. One of my favourite paintings, The taking of Christ by Caravaggio and this photo that I’d never seen – it’s Wilt Chamberlain and Pat Riley – they’re not quite hugging but they’re leaving the court and again it’s the same exact like composition. And I was thinking that there was no other way for me to align Jesus and a basketball scenario other than by using Wilt – I have to try this. So I just put them on top of each other and printed it out. And then it was like the one successful thing I did in my first semester here. The issue I was coming to though was that even though the compensations are interesting, they’re so flat and just on a piece of paper – like a ‘coming soon’ poster.
JW: Right, which makes them feel a little insignificant or trivial.
BW: I was having a lot of trouble with that. Then I realized that instead of [overlaying] them on the computer, I can print them, re-collage them by hand and try to find different ways of displaying them that way.
JW: Given the title ‘Too short to box with God’, it’s clear that everything here revolves around the divine and a very sacred presence or force. Specifically in the big pieces that are almost tapestries, and also the painterly transfers on wood. They very much take everything away from essentially being two-dimensional pieces as we discussed, and are elevated by the use of these materials. Given this link between artistic eras and the prominence of religious influence, was this very much intentional?
BW: Basketball’s been the way that I’ve been able to communicate the world that I live in. I’ve always liked art, but when I was a kid I didn’t understand what ‘abstract’ and all this stuff meant. I could look at a religious painting and know that it was clearly like all these specific figures. And then seeing these athletes that have always been this grand thing to me – those two things always just made sense. I was trying to think again when [my teachers] were telling me to make something that was really connected to my experience. When I was a kid, all I would do on these weekends was play basketball, watch basketball, go to church or hang out with friends – who usually went to the same church. I don’t go to church now but those things I’ve always felt are so intertwined in how I think and feel. Even though it isn’t like how I actively work with the world, I know about those things and they’re forever tied to me.
JW: In the show in LA, there was playback on a projector in the corner – all the footage from a very particular era in basketball. Was that for any reason in particular?
BW: It was probably subconscious but that was all from when I was growing up watching basketball. I think now that outside of the Lebron, no one’s that impactful to me right now. And I think even outside of that, I just think histories as a whole have always been interesting to me… Everything, that I like that is a ‘current thing’, I really like it because of how it came to be. Anything like that is really important to me now – I want to know how I got there and what were the building blocks for that?
And I think that also comes from a somewhat religious way [of thinking] because I know that whatever it is, I’m a culmination of things and I’m not this without all these things coming before me.
JW: What’s the next move with your work now that you’re wrapping up here at Pratt?
BW: I know that I do want to make a larger work for sure, but also ways to emphasize the colour. Either in preventing the loss of colour in the transfer or what I can go over it with later on. I guess generally working with more materials and seeing what I have access to.
JW: Is there any particular advantage you see in increasing scale? Is it to make the work more physically enterable?
BW: When we had our major critique in early November, I was able to make this work that was eight foot by six foot. It was a huge piece of Iverson and one of the conversions. That’s my favourite piece I’ve ever made. I wheat pasted it on the wall and it was completely different seeing it so huge… That [really showed] the magnitude of what he’s meant to me as the most influential player, and being able to do it at a scale – it really commanded you to stop and look at it. Even people who know nothing about sports, every time they saw it they were stunned.
JW: Who’s your team?
BW: When I was a kid I liked the rockets since I was from Houston but in ’97 when they lost the Jazz, I wrote the rockets off at that point and never been a Rockets fan since. I can’t stand watching the Rockets play basketball now. I don’t like James Harden… Carmelo Anthony kinda ruined teams for me. I was really ragged for Carmelo and then the Nuggets loss to the Lakers two years in a row – I think I was completely broken as a person and I just said at this point I’m not going to root for teams. I have to just root for a player. It’s really hard to root for a full team.
JW: Any picks for the playoffs?
BW: I think the Warriors are having a problem focusing but it doesn’t seem to matter to them until the finals. I would really like to see the Blazers gets to the conference finals. I think they can get that far and they have a chance to get to the finals. I would really like to see the Celtics get to the finals, but I’m okay with either the Celtics, Bucks or even the Sixers*… I just don’t want it to be the Raptors. Ever since Vince left it just hasn’t been the same…
*– We had this discussion a few rounds earlier in the playoffs when Boston and the Sixers were still contenders, and long before Kawhi hit that shot…