Katherine Bradford’s luminous nocturnes

"Magenta Nights" at Adams and Ollman considers atmospheres of air and water and the paint that can create them

“art is the power that causes the night to open.” — Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus

Katherine Bradford is a prolific and imaginative contemporary painter from New York City. Meeting her at the opening reception for her show Magenta Nights at Adams and Ollman gallery (through June 2) was like seeing a friend: Bradford’s social affability is that genuine and infectious. This is in keeping with proprietor Amy Adams, who worked closely with Bradford before the show to select works in her NYC studio. That evening, I got to talk with her a little about her acrylic paintings in that show, and then some more through correspondence. One takeaway from that initial interaction and my first looks at her work was Bradford’s affinity for atmosphere, the play of light and dark that is quintessential to the human experience, abstract and actual.

Katherine Bradford, “Swim at 6:10”, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 18 inches/Courtesy of Adams and Ollman

In a 2016 interview with Jennifer Samet, Bradford said, “what interests me the most is the language of painting—how people are able to say things using paint.” She then refers to a vernacular forever common to both poets and painters: the sea, the sky and clouds. Having seen two of her exhibitions in person, both at Adams & Ollman, I’ve asked myself, what is it then, that Bradford is saying with her pictures? She’s telling me about revery, buoyancy, fun—all perhaps contingent upon meditation and reflection. And then there’s the mysterious depth of the night that Bradford summons, that and the deep sea, the human mind. It’s all exciting, beyond sense, mystical, and yet utterly clear, approachable.

“And the stars they glisten, glisten,/Seeming with bright eyes to listen”
— John Keats, “‘Tis the Witching Time of Night”

Bradford’s painted subjects are often stargazers, boats and ships, divers and swimmers (and not the same old “bathers” ubiquitous throughout art history), Superman. They’re also mostly depicted as out-of-doors. Spending time looking at Magenta Nights, I find the content and apparent compositional approach the most intriguing, well, aside from how flat-out fun they are to look at. Bradford engages in a similar play of imagination that her made-up figures do—at least that’s the way she makes it look. It appears that this totally generative process, with layering, adding, and subtracting of paint, has happened to compose the scenes. Not that that’s a rare or special occurrence for painters, but for an artist to simply obey the thing in the moment as it goes, whether or not that something looks “correct,” veristic or whatever, is a different story altogether.

Katherine Bradford, “Magenta Nights”, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 inches/Courtesy Adams and Ollman

Scenes emerge on the spot: “In Splash Hand I wanted to “erase” the hand in the water and begin again, so I lay down some white paint. In that instant I saw that it looked like a splash of water so I left it as it was.” To my mind, it’s an attention to the occult experience, that which is not seen but felt, that allows for such a process, and as Bradford explained: “When I paint there is a sort of “channeling” involved and I often think of it as having to be ‘in a zone’ where my unconscious and my imagination are very alive.”

“The storms of the season make me loose my reason.”
Joanne Kyger

Certain of Bradford’s paintings bear a kind of light that, because of its durational attendance to storm departure and oncoming darkness, baffle. Talking about one particular painting adjacent to the show, titled Ritual, then just acquired by the Portland Art Museum, she noted that part of what inspired its hues were “thunderstorms that break the fever” of the summer heat in Maine. Looking at an image of Ritual with her and Victor Platt, a friend of Bradford’s and generous local supporter of her work, I really swooned at the image with that description. She went on to add “when I get the light right, I stop”—and of course that’s “even if the painting isn’t finished.”

Later, Bradford elaborated a bit about this strange illumination: “There’s a lot of beauty to that sensation but also a sense of foreboding, as if something unexpected has happened and a scary kind of dim light has taken over…the sensation that day light has suddenly been lost and the sky is filled with dampness and a sort of evening dark beginning to descend.”

“The sea widens for you tonight/and/deepens” — Hoa Nguyen, “Ficus Carica Sonnet”

Of the seven water-themed paintings that comprise Magenta Nights, there are three nocturnes that I keep returning to: Magenta Nights, Swim at 6:10, and House By the Sea, Magenta. In each there’s that otherworldly light that’s been cast upon its figures, and then the setting of either water or space, and also both. That Bradford acknowledges the connection of water to the unconscious allows us to see her work as, at least in part, a descent into the unknown. Her nocturnes evoke the forces of night, the unseen—even if it’s just “climate,” which is, you know, nothing to sneeze at.

Katherine Bradford, “House by the Sea Magenta”, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 18 inches/Courtesy of Adams and Ollman

In keeping with the ineffability of the water-and-space themes, the figures in Bradford’s paintings seem to elude, to confound as much as they please. They sometimes come and go, as in At Swim, or another painting from the show, Turquoise Beach, into the air or water, or canvas, or whatever. She doesn’t need to specify much about these forms, you can gather a lot by her gesture; their general simplicity reveals a strange interconnectedness (likewise, you can recognize your far off friends by not much more than the shapes they make). Nothing is forced or exaggerated in Bradford’s work; she doesn’t need to fill (decorate) space by way of the wonder of her approach, she simply attends to it.

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