Bradley James Cleaver, “The Aftermath”

Bradley James Cleaver, “The Aftermath”
a Senior Thesis Exhibition in the Gorman Building, University of Dallas, Irving TX.
November 28, 2018 – December 6, 2018.

Of pain, one wonders if it is separable from reflection. I spent most of November in a daze. Initially, I got back from a conference and found myself applying for new jobs and furthering my research. I wouldn’t say I was euphoric, but I was happier and working harder.

And then, I made a mistake: I started thinking. In this case, thinking led to the question of what progress looked like. I wasn’t sure, so I started wondering about what felt like progress. Applications and research don’t feel like progress, but approval from others and accolades do. I can’t say I spent too much of November chasing either, because it was far too easy to indulge regrets, e.g. the times I could have been better and gotten more.

Regrets linger. I don’t know if they always remain like a nuclear blast, but Cleaver’s work challenges us to wonder otherwise. His show consists of 8 ceramic nuclear bombs, each wearing its firing. I treat each as potentially containing the full narrative of the nuclear age—not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the development of the H-bomb, the Neutron bomb, ICBMs, rocketry, and anything else one may consider relevant. His palette of reds, browns, oranges, blacks, and a chilling chalk white is decidedly limited and very effective. “I’ll Be Waiting on the Banks of the Jordan” [not pictured] looks at first glance like a missile with bones for fins, but with peg-like ornamentation and a metal latch, calls to mind a meat locker. Reds, pinks, and white swirls place slaughter front and center, and I do wonder what this world would be like if every weapon had on its surface a reminder of its actual cost.

It’s a gruesome piece which this viewer felt strongly pushes the notion that pain, however universally experienced, is always personal. One might think I am just making this up, as we all know people who seem blissfully ignorant of the pain of others. We also know people with whom we struggle to communicate our pain, not because they’re not trying to be receptive, but because they simply can’t understand. Cleaver’s meat locker, carnage-reminding, heart-muscle-resembling rocket stands as an omen: those refugees whose children are being tear-gassed on the news are not just images on a screen. Their pain does not exist in a vacuum.

I spent a lot of time with “Home Sweet Home” [Fig. 1 & 2]. Immediately, one is drawn to how it is split, as if the bomb split upon impact with the earth [Fig. 2]. That is certainly a conventional explanation, but the coloring upon the casing may have more to say. A streak of orange upon one face extends upward, surrounded by cloudy white stains, looking not unlike a rocket launch. The juxtaposition of upward striving and downward collapse is striking, even though these are narratives specific to and expected from a rocket.

(Fig. 1) Brad Cleaver, “Home Sweet Home.” 2018. Sawdust fired stoneware and steel.

I do think it can be dangerous to conflate one’s personal pain with mass slaughter for a number of reasons. In this age, the goal of most media is to get a reaction for the sake of attention and advertising dollars. The quickest way to get a reaction is to encourage people to think their feelings and way of life are at stake in every event, to the absurd degree that one can actually think if the poor aren’t starved or those fleeing a war zone aren’t persecuted, one will be in danger. Ben Shapiro says something to the effect of “facts don’t care about your feelings,” then proceeds to twist every fact so baldly and blatantly it is nothing but a matter of his audience’s feelings. He makes quite a bit of money doing this—I’ve seen quite a few evangelicals wearing his t-shirts and his rhetoric, both of which I have no doubt will be used to indict us at the Last Judgment.

(Fig. 2) Brad Cleaver, “Home Sweet Home” (side view).

In all of Cleaver’s missiles, but “Home Sweet Home” especially, we’re looking at pain as a process. There are ambitions and aspirations—creating a union, a family, reaching beyond oneself. And then there’s failure, which no word can adequately encompass, because a word has to be uttered by an individual speaker. When a family fractures, the pain involved is something different for each member of the family. No one with any sense would think nuclear devastation is being equated with the anger, fears, and regrets of failed relationships, and yet it isn’t hard to note key parallels.

Brad Cleaver, “Only Fools Rush In (II).” 2018. Sawdust fired stoneware and steel.

The subject of each piece can’t help but be heavy, but each has a different weight. Especially harsh is “Only Fools Rush In (II).” It draws attention to its fractures and dents with its metal stitches and ghastly white color. It’s hard to look at, as I thought it a bat beaten into a baseball, so bright white because it was so damaged.

Brad Cleaver, “Be Ready For The Jolt.” 2018. Sawdust fired stoneware and steel.

This stands somewhat in contrast with “Be Ready For The Jolt,” which has no fractures but appears a perfect, smooth canister. With caramel browns on the surface, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Starbucks brand can of espresso. But even a rich surface of those browns, velvety reds, and traces of orange doesn’t hide one affected area. As one walks around the piece, one finds a deep bruise of purple and red, vaguely resembling a heart. Does “Be Ready For The Jolt” quietly express the same as “Only Fools Rush In (II)?” Am I witnessing a timeline of pains experienced? The conversation these pieces engender lends itself to sensitivity to different types of pain, without diminishing any but appreciating the full weight of each. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” speaks to exceptional brutality visited upon a person. One can clearly see this in a vein of never again while noting the anxiety of other situations, including those prior to the visitation of violence.

“Only Fools Rush In” [not pictured], of all of Cleaver’s pieces on display, most resembles an explosion with a severely warped face, an emphatic bright, fiery orange, and thick black in abundance. I felt it, for myself, to be a fitting conclusion to the exhibition. The part like an explosion and smoke on one face resolves into a field of white, for once not a terrible, bleached color, but holding a pattern not unlike that of galaxies in astronomical photography. One could say I’m lying to myself about what fallout actually is, but after surveying the other works, I think I have a somewhat better notion of how fallout operates.

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