Bradford Edwards is the archetypal magpie: Flitting between Vietnam and Cambodia with eyes constantly peeled for fragments that catch his eye, the US artist’s work is a multi-cultural mosaic of found objects and images. His exhibition of mixed-media pieces, entitled “Between Beauty and Blight,” is at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for the month of June.
The show is divided into three sections. The first greets onlookers as they enter the FCC at street level: The collection called “The Mythical Idealized Vietnamese Woman” lures viewers up the restaurant stairs and into the main gallery space, where “Hand-painted Snapshots of Phnom Penh” and a mixed collection of pieces hang.
In the series “Hand-painted Snapshots of Phnom Penh,” Edwards presents casual views of the city’s street life in pairs. Glimpses of shop fronts and street signs, pedestrians and vendors are hand-painted in laquerware and housed like brightly colored jewels within mother-of-pearl frames and antique wooden betel-nut boxes.
This double-framed effect draws the viewer toward the miniature central image, and emphasizes the contrast between the subject and its presentation. “I wanted to give the idea of something super-precious,” Edwards explained. “And yet the image it contains is very informal.”
“Celebrating the ordinary is an old pop art theme, but I wanted to do it in Phnom Penh,” Edwards said. “So much art that focuses on this city, especially photojournalism, is very negative. I wanted to celebrate what’s positive about Phnom Penh.”
Edwards’ production technique is a novel fusion of the roles of artist and creative director. “I started by taking hundreds of snapshots of the city—little details, views that I liked,” he said. “I took the ones I liked best and had them hand-painted in laquerware in Vietnam. I like the contrast of the very casual images and the detailed, painstaking craft.”
This painstaking craft is executed, under Edwards’ direction, by experts in Vietnamese laquerware studios. The artist’s laid-back manner becomes somewhat ruffled when the role of these craftsmen is questioned; this is clearly an issue that Edwards has little patience with.
“A huge amount of artists’ work is done by delegation. It’s the nature of making artwork in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,” he said.
“In the real art world, no one would even question the removal of control from the artist’s hand. I can understand people who are uninformed about art questioning my methods, but it’s a tiresome argument.”
This concept of a “real art world” crops up frequently in Edwards’ conversation. Originally from the US state of California, the artist has spent most of the last decade in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam, and more recently in Cambodia. Much of his recent work has been exhibited in Vietnam, but the very Western notion of an art “cognoscenti”—a highly informed and critical community of art lovers—is clearly one that still haunts him, even in the very casual setting of the FCC.
The series “The Mythical Idealized Vietnamese Woman” shows images of a Vaseline-lensed feminine ideal, presented in silver-leaf and laquerware 1950s-style frames. Around each of the portraits is a border of rubber stamp imprints, which Edwards had custom-made to spell out words in French, Vietnamese, English and Chinese. Each stamp describes a role that the ideal woman should perform, such as “Mother,” “Lover,” “Warrior” and “Wife.”
Here, as in all his work, the artist says he sees himself as a spider, drawing the viewer into his web with an attractive image, only to deliver the knock-out punch of his conceptual design. “The viewer might initially be attracted by the colorful pop images, but when they get closer, they might notice the stamp border. And when they get closer still, they might read them,” Edwards explained. “The stamps are a statement about colonial influences, marking the four language groups that comprise Vietnamese culture.
“The images are also a wry social comment on what is traditionally expected of women there,” Edwards added.
The series was inspired by a lucky find: “I found a cache of vintage hand-tinted head shots of film stars from Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s,” Edwards said. “That determined the whole series.
“I don’t consciously set out with a strategy—the work just directs itself,” Edwards continued. “For me, the creative process is triggered by external stimulus. It’s not massively personal—you could say my work comes from the outside, rather than the inside.”
This is the enduring quality of Edwards’ work—the sense that his inspiration comes from his materials, rather than any original idea or concept. This makes for attractive and at times compelling pieces, but ultimately leaves the onlooker with little more than a pleasing aesthetic experience.
Edwards’ pieces are often charming, composed with visual wit and an eye for pleasing detail and incongruity. But conceptually, there’s little to get your teeth into. Issues of the feminine ideal are lightly touched on in his Vietnamese pin-up series, but the viewer is left with a sense that as long as his subjects look pretty, Edwards is happy with things the way they are.
“I know my work can seem confusing to the layman,” Edwards said with an apologetic shrug.
To this layman, his work didn’t seem confusing enough.