Threads of nature, spirituality and family love hold together this Harold Bradford retrospective

Harold Bradford’s “Tribute to Servitude”

Artist Harold Bradford was almost a pro football player. He memorializes the moment when injury sidelined his dreams in the painting titled “A Thin Line,” which is also the title of his retrospective showing through March 17 at Left of Center Art Gallery. An almost imperceptible vertical line separates the scene of an injured player into a before and after. Limping off the field, he grimaces, taking his first glimpse into that unknown “after.”

For Bradford, that future turned out to be a life and artistic career well and fully lived. He moved to Las Vegas more than 30 years ago to design neon signs for YESCO, most famously the Buffalo Bill’s Casino sign in Primm. Travelers might also have seen his 8-by-153-foot desert landscape mural “Tryptych Passages” in the McCarran Airport D Gates.

Family and spirituality dominate the gallery’s main room. Bursting with symbolism, paintings like “Praise Protocol,” “Tree of Life” and “After Church” depict a strong Christian faith and connection to the black community. Motifs include trees, blessings, praise, baptisms and dressed-up churchgoers. All are splashed with vibrant, glorious color.

Contrasting the church’s joyous imagery, “Daddy Was a Soldier,” is a piercing portrait of the artist’s father in fatigues. Adapted from a photo, the young man stares into the camera, with his hat cocked just so and a cigarette dangling from his lips. The painting is spiritually connected to the four pieces in the Buffalo Soldier Room. There, Bradford gives life and nuance to the historic black cavalry regiments. With buffalo and Native American imagery, the artist captures the pains and contradictions of one oppressed group forced to fight another. In “Burden of Glory,” one of Bradford’s favorite pieces, a Buffalo soldier holds an American flag, rolled up and slung over his shoulder as if it were a bedroll.

In another room, vibrant red mountainscapes of Southern Nevada reveal both the beauty of nature and the optimism of the West. The stunning panorama “Desert Passages” takes up two walls—it’s a version of the airport mural Bradford created for himself. Wild horses figure prominently, Bradford struck by their grace and beauty upon moving to Nevada. Horses were also one of the first things Bradford attempted drawing as a small child, taking tips from his father.

The final stop is the New Orleans Room, where paintings evoke Bradford’s family and hometown. Without passengers, a horse-drawn carriage driver is king of his own dominion in “Tribute to Servitude.” “Abandoned Spirit” depicts those who lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. “Mother, Daughter, & Sister Queens” is a lively and lovely tribute to the women in his family.

Despite this being a retrospective, Bradford isn’t done creating art. Right now, he’s working on a piece critiquing gun violence, although he won’t share details. One gallery room contains ephemera of his creative process: pen sketches, painting studies, newspaper clippings and artist statements. It seems fitting to end with one such handwritten note from the artist’s fertile psyche: “Plant the seed in the grounds of your mind and eventually that seed will grow and become productive.”

A Thin Line: A Retrospective of the Artwork of Harold Bradford Through March 17; Tuesday-Friday, noon-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; free. Left of Center Art Gallery, 702-647-7378.

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