Prudence Roberts     Bonnie Bronson: A Retrospective      February 1993


"I may start out with an idea that immediately becomes complicated and I have learned to start taking things away to make this idea simpler and clearer. "

In this quote from a 1980 interview, artist Bonnie Bronson touches on one of the essential issues underlying her 30-year career. Her work is the visual record of her intellectual journey towards clarity and illumination. Through her art, Bronson sought ways to express and to track this journey by creating series of objects to serve as tangible evidence - a visual metaphor - of the ideas she was grappling with. Over time, she acquired an ever-growing vocabulary of styles and materials to bring to her art. Paint, metal, paper, enamel, clay, wood, cardboard and plants - all were media she handled with ease and with inspiration. As one of her friends noted, "Bonnie could force beauty out of, the earth or steel or paint."

More than most artists, Bronson resisted labels and did not want to be associated with one style, technique or medium. Although she painted, she was not simply a painter. Her tapestry designs notwithstanding, she could not be classified as a textile artist. And, while she is best known for her public commissions, many of which are large sculptures, sculpture is not the backbone of her work. A brilliant colorist, Bronson often left her metal surfaces unpainted or used monochromatic finishes. Her works range from massive public commissions to tiny, jewel-like enameled pieces. While she considered herself an abstract or non-representational artist, she drew from the natural world, among other sources, for her forms; allusions to the landscape, to the art of other cultures or to the soft curves of a human body occur as frequently as the elegant interlocking of pure geometric shapes.

Despite these seeming contradictions, certain constants and certain motifs run through nearly all Bronson's work. Her love of pattern and of repeated shapes reveals itself in everything from her thousands of sketches to her modular wall pieces and her tapestries. Her interest in collage led her to combine various materials, both expected and unexpected - tissue papers, scrap metal and, in her gardens, various plant forms.

Bronson's work was so entwined with "the rest" of her life that it is impossible to separate her artistic activities from her garden, her rock climbing, and her ability to create beautiful living spaces. Her art sprang equally from these sources. Her studio was, quite literally, the heart of her home. Thus, this retrospective exhibition also becomes, in a sense, a visual biography of the artist. Because her work embodies her ideas, it illuminates all aspects of her life. There are pieces with titles derived from the names of her husband, her children and her friends. There are objects made for them. There are series of works based directly on her travels. There are works that clearly illustrate the close collaboration and artistic dialogue between Bronson and her husband, sculptor Lee Kelly.

Bronson studied painting at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (then known as the Museum Art School) from 1959-1961. Her earliest canvases reflect the influence of Abstract Expressionism. They are spontaneous and gestural, displaying none of the passion for precision and the interrelationship of forms that were to characterize so much of her later work. Of these paintings and other early pieces, Bronson once commented, "I would start with something simple and just start adding things to it and often I would go way too far. But...I remember how much I enjoyed those paintings. You're just dealing with your immediate emotions and it was an enjoyable experience - exciting." (WW, 7/21-27,1981, "Oregon's Quick-Change Artist," by Debra Trione).

Bronson's interest began to shift away from painting in the 1960s. Like other artists of that time, she was drawn to a more austere, minimalist style, to a more direct interaction with materials and to an exploration of shape and form. The qualities of various kinds of metal and the challenge of working it appealed to her. She first explored its potential in a series of metal collages - powerful wall sculptures created by welding together different kinds of metals - smooth, flat, shaped and corrugated -then applying paint to portions of the surface. The resulting pieces, while raw and gestural, show the beginnings of Bronson's interest in interlocking shapes, and in the relation between space and form. At the same time, they relate to her expressionist
paintings and relate, both stylistically and materially, to aspects of Kelly's work from the same period.

The metal collages also evidence an increasing tendency of Bronson's to create distinct, interrelated bodies of work - variations on a theme or reinterpretations of the same idea. Typically, pieces within a series differ only slightly. By limiting the number of variables within a suite, Bronson was able to achieve a clearer, more focused look at the problem she had posed herself. Once she had solved it to her satisfaction, she was apt to move on to another subject, often using a new material or technique.

"I think it's important to keep pushing on materials and ideas...and when you become stagnated, you have to do something dramatic sometimes to change," she once commented.

Over time, the relation between the series - the abiding interest in abstraction, in the nuances of related shapes, and in the paring down to essential forms - was to give Bronson's work a signature style, despite her unceasing quest for new challenges within that work. This style was characterized by a purity and a sense of truth to her materials and by a continual striving to express the essence of an idea.

By the early 1970s, Bronson had become interested in what she called metal canvasses - paintings made with enamel on steel panel. Anticipating this work is a small series of acrylic on board pieces completed in 1971. Surviving are Nature Study I, II and III. Using a limited but brilliant palette, Bronson created abstract works whose forms and space are derived from the glowing intensity of her color and the juxtaposition of simple, jigsaw shapes. For these pieces, she used old windows as frames. Thus, the abstractions are intersected by the segments of the frame which organize the shapes into landscapes - hills of deep rose and golden orange beneath a sky of vibrant green.

Bronson's first real breakthrough in the use of metal came in 1973. That year she received an Art Advocates Project grant, which she used to develop an industrial-scale enamelling process for the arts. With the new process, Bronson created a series of steel panel "paintings." In brilliant colors, she assembled a series of sensual images whose smooth, swelling lines and curves can be read as reclining nudes or as features of the land. Subtle shading and chromatic modulation give these works the shimmering delicacy of tissue paper collage and belie the toughness of their surfaces.

The enamelling process led to further experimentations with color and with form. And Bronson's desire to work on a larger scale - particularly for public commissions -resulted in a new series. "I was commissioned to do a piece for Nordstrom's...I wanted to do a large piece in enamel" and the only way I could do it was in modulars. So it opened up whole new possibilities in my work." (Trione)

The "modulars" were deceptively simple juxtapositions of geometry - combinations of enamelled steel squares, triangles, rectangles fitted together. Frequently uniform at first glance, the works reveal myriad variations upon closer inspection. A subtle red line may define the edge of one piece within a construction. Spaces between the pieces vary, so they become the equivalent of thicker and thinner lines within the composition. The surface of the modulars is not a flat plane: individual pieces advance and recede in an elaborate interplay between two and three dimensions.

Echoes of the modulars were to recur again and again in later work, and they became the basis for an extended exploration of patterns. Not surprisingly, one of the sources of inspiration for Bronson was quilts. She was intrigued not only by the patterns but by the way quilt-making once fit into a woman's life and routine and was not an activity apart from it. The notion of quilting - of piecing together materials and working with interlocking shapes - is a constant theme in Bronson's work. And, while she was not interested in creating quilts herself, she often studied a framed fragment of a satin patchwork quilt, made in a pattern known as "baby's blocks."

Perhaps the pieces that most closely resemble actual quilts are the ones in Grandma's Dream, a series by Bronson from 1978. All twelve are roughly square -16.25 inches high by 14.25 inches wide - and are made of cardboard, a material whose possibilities had intrigued Bronson ever since she began using it to create maquettes for her large metal compositions. For the works in Grandma's Dream, Bronson tore and scored cardboard into rectangles, diamonds and squares, then pieced them together, combining smooth and corrugated surfaces to which she added subtle color variations using oil sticks and acrylic paint.

After the many-faceted works in Grandma's Dream, with their softness and warmth, Bronson turned again to steel. The three related pieces in the Jas suite, dating from 1979, were completed with the help of an Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship, at a time when Bronson was mourning the death of her son Jason. The Jas series was part of a 1979 exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. In an accompanying essay, curator William Chiego wrote, "The idea for the series is related to Bronson's visual experience in the high country of Idaho of large, earth-bound boulders locked together for eternity. The artist saw her sculptural ideas reflected in these rock forms, nature acting as a reinforcement for her thinking."

The link with natural forms and processes is furthered by Bronson's decision to use an acid bath rather than an enamel finish on the Jas pieces. The rich textures and warm tones are reminiscent of the surfaces of some of her cardboard pieces in which she scraped and manipulated the corrugated side of the cardboard. Despite their massive scale - each is more than nine feet long - the pieces have the delicate precision one might associate with folded origami shapes.

In 1979, the same year that Bronson created theJasseries, she and Kelly made their first trip to Nepal and India. They both had long been interested in non-Western culture and spirituality. The trip to Nepal changed Bronson's life and her work by exposing her to a new set of influences and an aesthetic that came directly out of another culture rather than the studio tradition that had led her to experiment with abstract expressionism, then with minimalism. The experience freed her to further integrate her art-making into her life. While her work did not reflect the changes immediately, as her daughter Kassandra Kelly Stirling has noted, "After Nepal, nothing was ever the same again."

For Bronson, the aesthetic lure of Nepal lay not in its art-historical tradition - a tradition of religious imagery that had little to do with Bronson's interest in non-representational art - but in the people, in the light and in the architecture. Over the next few years, she produced several series of metal collages that were closely related, stylistically, to the Jas series and to her cardboard pieces. In addition, in 1982, she completed two of her most important public commissions: a massive (24 ft. by 14 ft.) exterior wall sculpture for the WyEast Day Lodge at Timberline Lodge and a pair of works for the Justice Center in Portland.

During this time Bronson struggled to express her sense of the Nepalese place and culture. Her most successful distillation of the experience came first in the 1985 Nepali Windows, a series of abstract, monochromatic modular painted steel pieces, and later in her tapestry designs. The Nepali Windows was unlike any other suite she had created. She was drawn to the windows of Nepal because of their simplicity. "They had no glass - they were openings to look out of, openings to participate in the out-of-doors," she noted later in a KBOO radio interview. Bronson recreated the sense of these simple openings and the mysterious quality of the views they might contain by using overlapping, irregular rectangles to frame a central "window" and to create compositions that, at their essence, explore the interplay between open and closed, between positive and negative space and between variations on a four-sided shape.

At the same time, Bronson began creating the designs for tapestries that would be fabricated in Nepal, using traditional materials and weaving techniques. The rugs she designed over the next several years display Bronson's unchanging fascination with vibrant color and simple patterns and motifs, often geometric, employed with restraint atop a brilliant, monochromatic field.

The trips Bronson and Kelly made in the mid-1980s to Aztec, Mayan and Toltec archeological sites were die inspiration for much of her major, later work. As a friend noted, Bronson's oeuvre divides itself naturally into chapters, each inspired by an important event or milestone in her life. As one studies the totality of her work, the thematic transitions between chapters begin to emerge, and the "plot" becomes more apparent. In the Serpent Feathers, Eight Deer and Chac series, Bronson united her direct, intuitive response to the imagery of non-Western cultures with her love of abstraction, color, and challenging materials.

For her Serpent Feathers series, exhibited in 1987 at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Bronson drew upon the imagery of the Mayan and Toltec wall reliefs, particularly those depicting priests attached to the cult of the god Quetzalcoatl, the "plumed serpent." Bronson translated the headdresses worn by the priests into "feathers" shaped from sheets of steel, welded together at angles and then gathered into a band that serves as a base for the works. Bronson did not alter the surface of these pieces, so the marks of her work - spot welds and natural patina -lend a sense of vitality and animation to the spiky elegance of the feathers. In her artist's statement for the exhibition, Bronson wrote of the relation between her work and the wall reliefs she had studied: "I found myself transferring the scale and vitality of the culture to my work. The images have become less formal, more primitive, even mask-like."

The related Eight Deer series, completed a year later, is more polished than Serpent Feathers and explores more shapes and combinations. Many of the pieces seem to draw on the same feather imagery, but the use of enamel on the steel's surface removes the rawness of the earlier work. Eight Deer V is among the most interesting pieces in this suite. Here, the four white enamelled steel feathers more closely resemble stalks of grain, held together and pinched in by a textured band. The piece is cool, elegant and polished, but retains the naturalistic allusions of the Serpent Feather series.

In her next body of work, Bronson turned away from metal to explore a new material, wood, which she carved and painted. The Chac series of wall sculptures, made in 1988-89, was a more focused exploration of a specific area of Mayan art and imagery. The pieces resemble glyph-like representations of many of the attributes -axes, shells, and feathers - associated with Chac, the Mayan god of rain, and were made at a time when new scholarship was expanding the knowledge of ancient Mayan culture. The resulting pieces have an intimacy and a gestural quality due in part to Bronson's direct method of working the wood. The fresh, clear blues, lavenders, reds and warm oranges are lightly applied, so the surface grains and carving marks are clearly visible. The work is joyous and playful, its curvilinear lines a departure from the
geometric shapes on which so much of Bronson's recent work had been based. The accompanying watercolor studies are equally lyrical and colorful.

Before her death in August 1990, Bronson was concentrating her energies on yet another new endeavor. The work she envisioned occupied an entire wall in her studio and, when completed, was to incorporate movement and music. Attached to the wall, seemingly at random, are a number of forms made of cast epoxy resin. Designed as toe- and hand-holds for rock climbing practice, the pieces also bear a resemblance to the glyphs in the Chac series. They were to be colored, but Bronson had not yet found a solution that pleased her.

Her gardens are the ultimate summation of Bronson's love of materials, of change and of growth. And, because she drew on no models for their creation, but learned through the process of doing, they also parallel the course her other art-making, took as well -a course in which she gradually abandoned the studio tradition to follow her own direct experiences and intuitions. The gardens have become a series of differing environments - paths, pools, flower beds and groves of trees -that form a living collage and serve as a setting for Kelly's sculpture. Bronson's ashes are scattered here, and Kelly has worked to shape the gardens, following the plans and. drawings she had made. But it is a process that, like Bronson's work, is not intended to reach
a state of completion or of perfection.

"I feel the materials are just something I'm using. The material is just one way of developing the idea."