Often little more than daubs and smears, the miniature figures populating the textured expanses of Katherine Bradford’s recent paintings seem as though they might at any moment melt back into the once-formless substance that constitutes them. The sensation is not without meaning in the context of her subject matter: swimmers in various kinds of waters, from pounding ocean waves to tranquil night-lit pools. The paintings plumb a venerable theme—that of the bather, beloved of Cézanne and Renoir. Accordingly, alongside the feeling of sensuous immersion attending the subject of (near) naked humans communing with nature there exist some fundamental issues of form and representation. Still, Bradford has long been skilled at knocking grandiosity down a peg, humanizing the Ab-Ex sublime by populating her big stretches of abstract color, layer upon layer of paint, with quirky superheroes or ships glowing with tiny illuminated portholes. Hers are salt-of-the-earth American swimmers and surfers, not fancy-pants “bathers”; we identify with them, empathizing with their vulnerability and amused at their manifest awkwardness. Her work’s faux naiveté brings to mind that of the all-too-canny Malcolm Morley and Philip Guston.
Fear of Waves (all works 2015 or 2016) was one of the largest canvases on view and was the sole oil (the other 10 were acrylics). It was also the showstopper. The 7-by-6-foot composition is divided roughly in half on a diagonal vertical, with giant waves heaving leftward toward a crowd of swimmers. The swimmers flee through a turquoise impasto occasionally spattered with white and dappled with patches of blue, a swath so thick with paint that their exertions are palpable. There is a broad range of effects, from sunlit surfaces to watery depths. The people—here all brunettes, their heads little more than punctuation marks—have sunburnt orange and magenta skin; some wind up under streaks of gray-blue, as though submerged. We can almost hear the shrieks of terror and delight.
Several night scenes—long Bradford’s strength, suggesting as they do the realm of dreams—show swimmers under the moon and stars, or even in outer space. Fathers floats an oblong pool in a thick, dark heaven; ringed with bright blue and luminescent pink, this Jacuzzi-in-the-sky hosts a party of men communing in the great beyond. Three large figures stretch their bodies vertically in Pool Swimmers, Green; they are dressed in chaste white attire and swim straight ahead in their lanes. We see them from above, and, though no time of day is indicated, the yellowish green coloration implies night lights inside the pool. Most wacky is Swim Team Miami, a veritable constellation of swimmers in some celestial realm, enjoying through eternity their pink patch of water and colorful props. One figure looks as though she is standing on a planet; another appears to crawl right through a bright blue hole in the sky.
It is precisely the figures’ finitude in relation to something bigger than themselves that gives Bradford’s paintings their particular pathos. To make the struggle believable, she has to make the “bigger” gorgeous and unfathomable, seductive and threatening all at once. The stakes are high, and Bradford grows ever more daring.
Katherine Bradford’s latest paintings (all 2011 or ’12) feature ships at sea and Superman aloft. Well, it’s a version of Superman-not the one in DC Comics or the movies, perhaps, but the trademark “S,” those primary colors and his flying about leave no doubt as to who he is. Rendered in loose, blobby shapes, a spiral or zigzag sometimes tracking his path, Bradford’s Superman embodies a peculiar idea of flying, as he floats in air tentatively, even vulnerably, and certainly does not proceed “faster than a speeding bullet.” The depictions are not cartoony and have none of the attitude or crisp design of Pop art. They evoke childhood without being ingratiating or sentimental. The deliberate naïveté of Bradford’s paintings of Superman and of boats suggests not so much a child’s notions as an adult’s dreamy regressions.
In Superman Responds, Night, we look up at the figure, bent forward as though at the high point of a dive, and set against the rubbed, matte darks of an atmospheric sky marked with small bursts of color that we take for stars. A flattened red “Z” at the bottom may signify land or an earlier trajectory of flight. The 4-by-3-foot image is at once offhand and emblematic.
Bradford’s way of working is predicated on a trust in possibilities beyond her conscious intentions or formal inclinations, and on a responsiveness to what shows up on the canvas. She builds her paint through funky accretions, scumbling, scraping, wiping down and in some cases layering white over bright colors as though to begin again. The evident revisions of surfaces and formal structures suggest that many of the paintings have been accomplished over long periods in the studio. I imagine the artist waiting, while working, for the image to assert itself, to dare her to recognize it and then back off.
Sargasso and Midsummer Night both evince numerous stages of development and a resulting complexity of texture. They were the richest, most luminous works in the exhibition. Sargasso and the other paintings of ships, some seen as if arriving, some in profile as if in transit, have a visionary character. They suggest some mythic backstory recalled from childhood or dreams. The exhilarating payoff of Bradford’s cultivated spontaneity can be a distinctive power and beauty. Less successful paintings-I’d nominate Lady Liberty and At Home-rest too much on narrative particulars, limiting associations.
A group of small gouaches with collaged elements, 15 by 11 inches each, demonstrated the artist’s assurance, powers of invention and finely tuned sense of scale. These images show Bradford’s edgy exploratory impulse and deep feeling for her subjects in perfect sync.
Photo: Katherine Bradford: Superman Responds, Night, 2011, oil on canvas, 48 by 36 inches; at Edward Thorp.