Ben Bridgers: Back Burner

Through Friday, July 10 

Craven Allen Gallery, Durham

“I’m nervous. We made it through the recession but that was really difficult—really difficult. And I remember having the conscious thought, ‘I never want to go through something like that again.’” 

It’s May 30, 11 weeks since COVID-19 surfaced in the U.S., and John Craven Bloedorn, co-owner of Craven Allen Gallery in downtown Durham, is weighing the current crisis against the 2008 financial meltdown. He’s sitting in his small basement gallery, surrounded by a series of phantasmagoric paintings by Ben Bridgers, whose exhibit, Back Burner, squeezed in an opening reception just before the lockdown halted social gatherings. 

On May 11, Craven Allen became one of the first art galleries in the Triangle to reopen to the public. Bridgers’s show has been extended through July 10 to make up for lost time. 

“That was the killer for me,” Bloedorn says. “It was an exciting show that nobody saw. The world was starting to get really distracted right at the time of the opening and now we’re trying to salvage it.” 

It’s painfully apt that Bridgers’s 27 oil paintings on canvas depict something like purgatory, inhabited by cryptozoological creatures and carnivalesque objects, all of which are rendered somewhere between anatomical and abstract. Bridgers’s lowbrow imagery evolved out of a lifetime of skateboarding and the irreverent pictures that filled skate zines and videos in the 1980s. 

But he paints deftly, using old-world technique, patiently layering thin glazes to render pitch-dark shadows and teasing mysterious luminosity from the strata. It’s a style that Dutch painters gifted to the language of art more than 300 years ago. The homage is clear, but Bridgers’s marks are intentionally crude, and his subjects are grotesque, in a gesture that defies that same history. 

The confluence between skate culture and Bridgers’s chosen medium is subtle and all the more rewarding when revealed. A painting called “East of Barstow” refers to the last significant parcel of civilization before I-40 makes an agonizing desert run toward Los Angeles, the holy land of skateboarding. It depicts an odd configuration of objects that could have been dreamed up by a madman. 

Just beneath that, a smaller piece, “Cervantes,” reads like a close-up of the same image. Bridgers repeats the composition but changes the scale and the details, resulting in a giddy moment of disorientation. The title is a reference to “Don Quixote,” which chronicles the adventures of a delusional knight errant. 

Beneath it is “Laughing Stock,” which presents a stage lined with unnamable creatures whose crustaceous shells are painstakingly striped, black and white, like jumpsuits on a midcentury chain-gang. The paintings read as the elaborate doodles of a restless hand, given the consideration reserved for a masterwork. They amount to a “damn it all” attitude, expressed with discipline and rigor—right in line with the spirit of skateboarding and the punk/hardcore music that accompanies it. 

But beyond reference to his source material, Bridgers’s images are stubbornly cryptic. It’s impossible to decipher what, if anything, is at stake in these paintings. With skateboarding, the bet is simple. You either stick the trick or fall down trying. The sport is inherently honest in that way. Art, however, is rife with strategies that allow an artist to shield deficiencies or hedge the bet, and Bridgers leans hard on the evasive and enigmatic. 

Given the timing of this show, Bridgers’s unwillingness to be pinned down might be a good thing. His work satiates our reverence for acts of irreverence, setting the right tone as Craven Allen Gallery reengages with a world wrought with new uncertainties and grief. 

You can catch the last days of Back Burner during gallery hours as long as you’re willing to practice social distancing and wear a mask, which the gallery will provide. Even with these new impediments to managing a safe public space, Bloedorn remains optimistic. 

“We are going to have to reinvent ourselves somehow, and we are going to have to find meaning,” he says. “I’m still feeling it out, and I don’t have any easy answers.” 

The gallery’s next exhibit is From Memory by landscape painter Sue Sneddon. There will be no physical opening reception, so Bloedorn and his crew are working to create a virtual equivalent. Starting July 20, Sneddon’s work will be available to view in person during gallery hours or online, along with a short film about Sneddon by Donna Campbell and Georgann Eubanks. At some point, Craven Allen will host a Facebook Live event in an attempt to channel some of the energy typical of Sneddon’s many past shows. 

“She’s had probably 15 shows here,” Bloedorn says wistfully. “She has her band here every time. She does her own little events where she invites people after hours. It’s this huge thing for her.” He drifts into thought. 

“What’s that gonna be like?” he muses. “I just don’t know.”

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