The arresting paintings of Brad Gray require concentration on the part of the beholder. An artist of the world, he has made Wilderness his home whilst maintaining contact with the international art market.

WORDS Timothy Twidle PHOTOGRAPHS Kevin Factor

Brad Gray knows no boundaries. His is art that effortlessly crosses national borders. Recently Gray entered a painting entitled Discussing the Big Bang on a Plain in the prestigious Charlatan Ink Art Prize in New York, and among the many hundreds of works entered, it reached the semi-finals.

Gray is the thinking person’s artist.. His paintings are the subject of considerable thought, even before so much as a brush is put to canvas. Execution of a work is equally thorough and may take anything from six days to six weeks to complete. His work is filled with allegory and the symbolism is not dissimilar to the imagery employed by the great Belgian surrealist René Magritte. The umber substrate on which Gray builds a painting is evocative of Diego Velázquez, and his bold use of chiaroscuro is drawn from an admiration for the work of Michelangelo Caravaggio. The disparate images in Gray’s paintings are arranged into a precise matrix of composition, a subject that he studied intensively for three years.

Gray was born in Germany, the son of an officer serving in the British Army on the Rhine, and after a spell in the Royal Marines he studied at an art college in Bristol, England. He then spent six years as a professional illustrator for big names such as EMI and Harper Collins before moving to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where he taught art for five years. During his time in the Middle East, Gray travelled extensively to countries such as Ethiopia, Yemen and Vietnam and other destinations off the beaten track. After Saudi, Brad and his wife Elaine considered several countries where they might settle, including France, India and Tanzania, before deciding on Wilderness in the heart of the Garden Route.

“We came on an exploratory visit in 2002, saw Wilderness and liked it straightaway,” Gray explains. Home is now a lovely cottage style house with walls bedecked in lemon yellow overlapping slats and a roof of viridian green, set on half a hectare of lawn, shrubs and trees. At the bottom of the garden Gray has a custom built studio which matches the style and colours of the house. The property, amidst untrammelled nature, generates a lovely, peaceful ambiance well disposed to the creation of fine art.

Gray paints for anything up to ten hours at a stretch, six days a week. Whenever he puts paint on a brush, it is always to music: “I play the albums of System of a Dawn, Tool, Pavement, Modest Mouse and Wedding Present,” he says. As to the formative influences of his work, Gray often draws upon topical events, or alternatively the painting makes a statement about some aspect of life, always allegorically. Gray’s paintings demand that the viewer both look and think.

“Not every piece follows a thread, and if it does, I am not always sure what that thread is. My work often involves playing with themes that evolve from the parallels and contradictions within us; the dark and light of existence, peace and violence, chaos and calm. I enjoy playing with words and sometimes weave humour through the narrative to convey the absurdity of a situation. My paintings range from small atmospheric oils to large, more involved, complex compositions. The smaller works focus primarily on texture, creating mood and movement through the use of strong tonal range and loose brushstrokes. The larger works are often theatrical in nature, depicting an array of quirky characters thrown together in a world not entirely of our own but with references to it.”

Gray’s wide travel experience is reflected in his paintings and his imagery is enhanced by a range of techniques that are all his own. He often dabs tissue paper and polyvinyl acetate (PVA) on to the surface of the canvas to create texture and an underlying construction. The foundation of a painting is built up with a brown based mix of hues and worked intensively with a palette knife. Sandpaper may be used to smooth back some of the texture, that is then given depth with the application of multiple glazes. Gray also employs impasto (thick application of paint), scumbling (working an opaque layer of paint over another colour to give an uneven, broken effect), and at times will apply loose, drippy paint.

Gray continues to enter many art competitions, both in South Africa and internationally. Aside from being a Sanlam Vuleka Award finalist twice as well as a Sasol New Signatures finalist, Gray was one of 400 artists short-listed from 10,000 entrants for the ‘Not the Turner Prize’ in 2003, where his painting was one of only 12 works sold.

He draws inspiration from everyday life, the colour schemes of nature and chance encounters with people of unusual backgrounds. “My work does not feature modern things. Each painting is an organic process, infused with something natural. I’m not into sharp edges and straight lines. I’m more into soft edges and broken lines. The image comes out of the paint”.

The imagery is powerful enough to stop anyone in their tracks and to make them ponder, reflect and take note. To be sure, Brad Gray is an artist of immense creative talent and his work is destined to continue to be admired and sought after.