In Nature’s corner: Charles Lynn Bragg on view at the Manhattan Beach Art Center
Halfway home: a mid-career survey of Charles Lynn Bragg
by Bondo Wyszpolski
It’s quite possible you’ve held, in your hands, a reproduction or two by artist Charles Lynn Bragg. More likely you held it gingerly between your fingers, and that’s because in 1994 he designed a set of four stamps, called “Wonders of the Sea,” for the U.S. Postal Service. There were, at one time, 255 million of those babies.
Charles Lynn Bragg is the son of Charles Bragg, and sometimes there’s a bit of confusion among the general populace as to who did what because—look him up—the elder Bragg was a well known illustrator whose work is instantly recognizable, if not quite to the tune of 255 million. But probably close.
The younger Bragg goes informally by Chick, and that’s what I’m calling him from here on out, even though he uses all three names when signing his work.
Well, Chick is a natural for a big feature story because he’s a Manhattan Beach resident, lives a stone’s throw from the ocean, and is an avid surfer. Plus he’s the recipient of a solo show in the Manhattan Beach Art Center that has its opening reception on Friday, Feb. 4.
No better parents
When I meet up with Chick, he’s in the gallery itself and putting some finishing touches on a realistic depiction of a tree that fills out most of the large canvas. He’s lived in his current home since 2001, and before that he rented a place on the Strand in 1993. He seems to be enjoying the good life. Hours after we spoke, Chick turned 70 years old, which is about the time when most pop singers embark on their “Farewell” tours. However, Chick’s show, “In Progress,” is billed as a mid-career retrospective. That implies, and I hope it bears out, that in about 25 years we can return for the late-career retrospective.
But let’s go back in time, before Chick was hatched, and start with his talented parents, who initially moved from New York to Detroit before setting their sights on California.
“My sister and I were born in Detroit and (the family) came here when I was four, in 1956. They weren’t professional artists but they rented a studio space in Beverly Hills and they just started painting and having classes. In order to keep my sister and I busy, and to get us out of the way, they gave us coloring books and crayons and paints. So we were always painting or drawing since we were little. And it just never stopped.”
Did his folks ever try to shoo him away from a career in art? Didn’t they want him to become an economist or lawyer or something? Well, no, although for a while, Chick says, “I wanted to do whatever my parents weren’t doing.” But if you have super cool parents just how much do you want to resist their influence?
“I had the greatest parents, loving, funny, really smart people, sensitive and compassionate. I was so lucky.” They must have felt themselves lucky as well: “They eloped when my mom was 16, my dad was 18. I wasn’t born for another couple of years, so they didn’t have to get married, but they eloped and ran away.” And, he adds, “They threw the best parties. Some of the best parties I’ve ever been to were thrown by my folks.”
Chick was about 23 when he decided that art was something he could do as a profession. But long before that he and his sister, Georgia, were helping out their father, whose career skyrocketed during the middle- to late-1960s, largely with his etchings. “He became so popular and did so many of them—but he needed printers. So myself and my sister started printing his etchings.”
Not surprisingly, then, “I started out as a printmaker as far as making money in art. That was in the late 1960s, and right around 1970 I started making my own etchings because I could. My dad and my mom did not really teach us much about art; they just gave us the tools and said, Go ahead and do that. My dad did give me a few tips on how to etch a plate, but then I elaborated, and I experimented a lot more than he did.” Not long after that, Chick got himself an agent and his etchings—no drawings or paintings yet—were marketed in Central and Southern California. Financially, he was off and running.
And his sister, Georgia? “She also made some etchings,” Chick says. “She was a printer, had a big print shop that printed etchings for artists, and she had her own line of greeting cards. And those were a big business for her. She’s also a good painter, a good draftswoman, and a writer. She’s got five books now and goes by Georgia Bragg.” Their dad, he points out, was a writer as well, and very funny.
Evidently, Georgia and Chick won the lottery where parents are concerned.
Mother Nature’s son
One of the key works in the current show is a poster called “City Limits.” In the foreground there is a jungle with lots and lots of animals, and far in the background (but not far enough!) there are skyscrapers and, as the final but restrained exclamation point, a bulldozer. Originally, the foreground was occupied by a woman but Chick wasn’t pleased with how she was turning out, so he kept adding to the picture and eventually she disappeared altogether. The poster is one of several works that give notice of the painter’s environmental concerns.
Early on, Chick became alarmed about how humans were impacting the natural world. “I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 18,” he says, “just because I like animals.” In the early ‘70s he remembers experiencing the gasoline shortage and one of our many major droughts. “I took it all seriously then and I take it seriously now. I conserve water, I conserve the way I drive…
“And then the ecosystem, loss of habitats, rainforest destruction—that was really big then. I started painting animals in the environment” to bring attention to these important issues. Soon after this he began to travel, his cameras in his backpack, and he would photograph in forests, jungles, the desert, and even underwater; and many of these images ended up in his canvases. What isn’t based on his own photos, Chick has found either by scouring old books or freeze-framing videos and then photographing the screen. He’s conscientious about not appropriating copyrighted images, but even so he did get dinged one time by National Geographic, a lesson one doesn’t need to learn twice.
I’m guessing that 50 years ago, as a young man, Chick envisioned that his artwork would help bring a greater awareness of what was at stake if we didn’t wise up and treat the world around us with greater respect. “It’s not looking good,” he says now.
The late Edward O. Wilson, for example, pointed out that we can mathematically project population trends, and from that calculate what the ensuing impact will be on the environment, and thus the quality of life. Wilson went on to mention Bertrand Russell’s observation about people’s unwillingness to think about population growth: “He said people would rather commit suicide than learn arithmetic.”
Chick’s ongoing concern about the precarious health of the planet is evident throughout the gallery. He’s taken Old Master paintings by the likes of Van Gogh, Dali and Munch, and repurposed them, so to speak, by adding incidental features, like a missile coursing through Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Included in the show is his reimagining of Norman Rockwell’s 1929 Saturday Evening Post cover, “Doctor and the Doll,” in which a little girl is offering her doll to a family physician who humors her by listening to its heartbeat with his stethoscope. In Chick’s version the doll has been replaced by a world globe. A couple of his sculptures—and more on them momentarily—also depict variations on this theme.
Doomsday scenarios are rampant, with greed and competition seeming to best common sense. “We have the technology to turn it around,” Chick says, “but we’re not going to. Some people will, but it won’t make a bit of difference.”
Other people, other places
One surefire way to gain perspective, about oneself and where one lives on the map, is by traveling, especially to far-flung countries or continents. Chick’s many trips to Africa certainly opened his eyes.
“It makes me appreciate a more simple life,” he says. “A lot of times they live much happier than the people that live around here. Their lives are stressful, too, but it’s just different. Their hearts are full; sometimes their bellies are full, sometimes not. I think I’m pretty approachable and welcoming, and I get that back. Yeah, it’s been a valuable learning experience, visiting different cultures, especially Third World cultures.”
One of the countries that Chick visited many times—and where he had over 40 one-man shows—is Japan, hardly Third World but definitely unique.
“In the span of 11 or 12 years I’ve been in Japan at least a whole year if I put it all together. About once a month they would have me go there, and once I started (in 1989), with all the animal stuff, they just bought everything I did. And they wanted what I wanted to do, which was the environmental work.”
Like Tom Waits, Chick Bragg was big in Japan for quite a while. His work struck a chord.
“It sold well and they kept saying ‘We want some more.’ And so it just kept going and going. I did a lot of painting of just a singular animal, a little vignette of some animals doing something, either kind of realistic or fantastical, just because that’s my nature—and their market.”
Then the Japanese economy tanked. “The dealer that I had lost his home,” Chick continues, “but I got him back in the black: he bought a new house, just from my work.” Even so, the in-demand popularity of his work didn’t fade. “So I kept going back—and they treated me like royalty, it was so awesome.”
Nearly every month he’d go for about a week. The people who sold his work were based in Osaka, but Chick says he had shows in about 30 cities. During those years, he adds, “I took a few Japanese courses at UCLA so I could speak and understand (the language).
“But then they wanted more and more, and by the end of year 9 or 10 I’m going, ‘I don’t know how else I can do a cat or a dolphin.’ I’m more of an eclectic kind of thinker and artist, and I said, ‘I’ve got to do something different. I’ll give you one more year; I’ll paint whatever you want for the next year, and then I have to be an artist.’ And they said, Okay; they understood.”
It may have been good timing as well, because by that point, Chick feels, the market was probably about saturated with his work in that genre. At the same time, he was opening another door in his artistic career.
“I’d been wanting to sculpt since I was young,” Chick says. After wrapping up his engagement with Japan, “I came home and sculpted the first piece, which is in the show. It’s called ‘Ego.’ I didn’t even know how to sculpt, but I got a hammer and the wrong kind of chisel and I made that piece. Then I started studying sculpture. But the reason I wanted to do sculpture was because my parents always had art books and, growing up, I remember opening and looking at—probably it was Michelangelo’s ‘David’—the hand. You could see the veins on the hand, and it was just like, that’s stone?! I’ve always wanted to do that, so I finally started.
“And,” he emphasizes, “I found I could sculpt. I had been doing probably 10,000 figure drawings over time—and paintings, studies, figure painting, and I studied anatomy in three different courses, but I hadn’t done any sculpting.” At first he was hesitant to plunge into this new realm. However, Chick says, “Once I started sculpting, I could sculpt. I can sculpt!”
Aside from “Ego,” there are several other sculptural works on view, including “The Big Squeeze” (a hand squeezing the planet), which was carved in marble—a material he much prefers over bronze.
From his enthusiasm, one might think that Chick has become a full-on sculptor, but he admits he’s not yet devoting as much time to it as he’d like. “I’ve been trying to button up a lot of other projects,” he says, and that included spending the previous five months organizing his studio. About the time he finished with that, the Manhattan Beach Art Center “asked me if I wanted to do a show and luckily I had it all organized. I could bring this, and that, and I knew where it was. But I’ve got a couple of bucket list sculptures that I want to do.”
Not all of them would involve traditional materials or subjects. Chick’s contemplating a standing figure made from empty medicine bottles, for example, or using the spirals that hold together spiral notebooks. And not only that. “I want to do a self-portrait of my brain. I want to get a scan of my brain and I want to have a 3-D print of it—and then from that sculpt my brain in marble or alabaster.”
That’s the creative mind at work, and Chick’s got the brilliance and know-how to pull it off. The work on view is quite diverse, and it even resembles a group show in that it also includes anatomical drawings, etchings, and simple black outlines on white paper, each with very brief commentaries—a visual contrast to the sometimes quite busy posters. The gallery visitor will have plenty to take in and think about, for this is sure to be an enriching experience for anyone who steps through the front doors.
In Progress: A Mid-Career Retrospective of Charles Lynn Bragg is currently on view in the Manhattan Beach Art Center, 1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd, Manhattan Beach. Hours, Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The opening reception is set for Friday, Feb. 4, at 6 p.m. Through April 3. Call (310) 802-5440 or visit citymb.info. ER