Rarely are trailblazers in the art world are acknowledged in their time. After all, much of the art world is driven by establishments. Breaking cultural and artistic norms can feel like an act of rebellion. In the world of abstract art, this remains a point of contention. For artists of color, these issues can be even greater. Artist Peter Bradley has long found himself skirting around the door to success but rarely broke through. However, documentarian Alex Rappaport captures the eccentric artist in a new light. With Peter Bradley spends the COVID pandemic trying to understand his incredible work while letting the man narrate his own life story. It’s both enthralling to hear his unique perspective and an entertaining exercise in trusting an unreliable narrator.
When COVID pushes Peter Bradley to his compound upstate, Alex Rappaport follows. Over the course of the pandemic, Rappaport gets Bradley to open up about his life and experiences. Growing up with influences like Miles Davis in his life, Rappaport chooses the life of an artist. However, he was unwilling to subjugate himself for the establishment, causing friction and lost work as a result. However, as Bradley nears his eightieth birthday, he begins to reflect on his influence.
Most of With Peter Bradley plays in a formulaic fashion. Rappaport lets Bradley tell his stories while the film edits in his home pictures. We then get to experience Bradley crafting new art as the artist walks us through his process. While this can occasionally result in repetitive sequences, it also provides a relaxing, low-stakes structure. The film’s jazzy score from the Javon Jackson Quintet helps create the easy-listening vibe that makes this a soothing watch.
Along the way, Bradley provides insight into his struggles as an artist. After his first couple of stories, he clearly shows raconteur skills. However, it’s also fair to question the validity of some of the stories. After all, he spins his yarns in such a way that allows for the embellishment or minimalization of some elements. While his stories may not be the gospel truth, they are endlessly entertaining.
The most important aspect of With Peter Bradley is shining a light on his work. The actual art pieces are gorgeous, and he attempts to teach the crew how he creates the works he does. He also makes a powerful argument to embrace multiple mediums of art, which allow the artist to embrace non-traditional approaches to their work. Combining Bradley’s visionary approach with Rappaport’s leisurely storytelling, With Peter Bradley makes for one fun documentary experience.