A Conversation: Katherine Bradford
There is a place, a safe place, a new place, somewhere other than where we are. A horizon, hazy like memories, colorful like wild dreams. Guided by a soft glow, carefree bodies drift afloat in an infinite ether. In the midst of cultural upheaval, Katherine Bradford steadily paints a path through a fantastical world, spared from the troubles of ours. On the occasion of her first solo museum show, and as part of the phenomenal series of FOCUS shows at The Modern in Fort Worth curated by Alison Hearst, Katherine and I had the chance to revisit with each other and have a conversation. - Arthur Peña, Dallas Contributor
Arthur Peña: What initially drew me to your work was a sense that it’s so much about looking. The work also really speaks to the process of making a painting.
Katherine Bradford: It’s helpful for me to think of just that word, “making”. I’m making something and not just painting a painting, which sometimes is too serious and wrought by art history, but if I’m making something I’m going off into a space where I can do whatever I want.
AP: I want to get a little sentimental with you and say that I believe in the magic that can happen in the studio when one is able to get out of the way.
KB: I think that would be a hard idea for someone who doesn’t make art to understand because it seems like the opposite of what you should do. You know, this painting (Under Water, Over Water) is a good example of what we are talking about. I did it at the end of this summer when I was very warmed up and had worked on some of these other paintings with the same phthalo turquoise. On this painting I put some white down and with the biggest brush I’ve ever used I stroked the paint on and it immediately looked like water, I didn’t even have to try. Right down here at the bottom I swear I saw a figure swimming, so I took my brush and made the line a little wobbly as I outlined the shape and when I stepped back it looked like someone was under water. It was a total gift of a painting.
AP: In the new work, the figures are starting to be so much more specific.
KB: In this painting (Waterfall), when I put down the phthalo turquoise, there were large dark areas and I saw the bodies of two people, but I had to give them heads and I wanted them to be floating and to be happy about floating. I didn’t want people to look at a painting and see dead bodies, so I gave them faces and wide-open eyes so that people knew they were alive. Since they are heading towards a little waterfall, I had to counter any sense of trouble by giving them an identity and a life or I wouldn’t be able to live with the painting. I wanted it to be an experience that the viewer would relate to and enjoy.
AP: I think there is a lot of empathy in the work which comes from the ambiguity of the settings and figures. In that openness you have given us so many ways to feel.
KB: Yes, but also the flip side of what you’re saying about empathy are artists that feel it’s important to make art about what they are angry about, they want to change things, and believe that if you’re taking up the viewer’s time with your art, it is to make a political statement, which is very much in the air. I do think that we have to appreciate that branch of art because it is very important but neither of us have chosen to make art about socio-political situations. I’m standing up for my belief in talking about empathy and the interior life through upbeat paintings and giving the viewer something that they wouldn’t want to dwell on.
AP: Your marks have such visual speed to them and unfold in layers throughout the surface. I think to a sensitive viewer your work reveals itself in a way that puts the viewer right where you were when you found the painting.
KB: I felt that with Louise Fishman’s show that was just at Cheim & Read. She was a mark marker, a gestural painter, no images. It was very open and lots of bare canvas and you could see where she had taken a knife and gone like this and like this and load white paint on her brush and go like this, and it worked.
AP: With your paintings, the oblique perspective pushes everything right up to the front and the marks are the guide. The bodies are there but it’s really the mark marking that’s the narrator.
KB: I’m glad you said that because I think most people see the figures first and try and explain to themselves what’s going on, to get the sense of it, which often they don’t find. But, I think it helps if you look at it as something made, as you said, something that is built with paint. Coming at it from a more abstract point of view is helpful although not everyone can do that.
AP: That idea of building a painting is so specific and, in some ways, I think only other painters can understand that concept and language.
KB: I was thinking about that. Maybe we need to talk about it for more people to know how painters think. You know, that was very important for me when I was learning to be an artist, to realize that there were certain issues that painters thought about. They would talk to me about the space in the painting and I didn’t know anything about the space in the painting. I thought that was the most nebulous concept, “What do you mean the space in a painting?” And, they would talk about things that worked and didn’t work and all of that was a revelation to me.
AP: You mentioned earlier that it’s only recently that you’ve had the opportunities to show as much as you have been. I’m guessing you’ve had to work faster; given the importance of intuition in your paintings, has the speed of making affected your work?
KB: To bring up Louise Fishman again, she came to my studio years ago and said, “Stop second guessing yourself!” I guess she could see in the work that I would make a move but then pull back and maybe try and make it a recognizable painting but there by take out what was good about it. So, I think one thing that has happened is that I have more self confidence in what I’m doing because I started to believe the people who were putting my paintings up on a wall. That’s been a big change, and I accepted what I was doing more. I wish I could give that to everyone. As a teacher I often tell students, “You see this little painting? It’s wonderful.” And they say, “That one? It’s so awkward and vulnerable.” I often think those are the best works and they don’t believe me.
AP: Why is that vulnerability important to you?
KB: I think as an emotional state, vulnerability is exciting. It’s the opposite of pretention and sureness. I was a senior critic at Yale last year and once a week the entire MFA faculty would gather in what they call the “pit crit” and sometimes I would single out a piece and say how extraordinary I thought the work was and applaud it, and I would be contradicted by the faculty. I remember that one person said that the work was the weakest piece, or it would simply be ignored. I’m not saying I lost my self-confidence, but I had to question whether I was crazy or not. But, I figured part of having a group critique is to get a variety of opinions so when I say my honest reaction to something it’s what I see; I’m an artist and this is how I feel.
AP: Maybe it’s about rooting for the underdog which is about having the opportunity to see that the human experience can thrive in the muck. A team pulling together for the win or an unknown actor nominated in their field. It’s a sense that anybody could be their true selves and still matter.
KB: Or still communicate! I’m glad you brought up the example of the actor because I’ve noticed in other fields other than visual arts, there’s a lot of emotion; there’s crying, sentimentality, nostalgia. In the opera there’s people belting out their feelings about the slightest things and a lot of times that’s taboo in the visual arts.
AP: I believe in the power of painting, that it can reach out and enter you, if you’re open to it. You believe in it.
KB: I do! We’re believer’s! But, I’m not sure that everyone is a believer to the extent that we are. We believe in the power of painting. That’s a lot.
FOCUS: Katherine Bradford, runs through January 14, 2018 at The Modern in Forth Worth, TX.
Arthur Peña is the 2017-2018 Visiting Assistant Professor in Painting at University of North Texas.
Images Courtesy of the Artist, CANADA, New York, and The Modern.