A New Hero: Katherine Bradford at Edward Thorp
Katherine Bradford: New Work at Edward Thorp Gallery
April 19 to June 9, 2012
210 Eleventh Avenue, 6th Floor, between 24th and 25th streets
New York City, 212-691-6565
The First Great Depression bequeathed the common culture a pantheon of superheroes now making a spectacular “comeback” – although of course they never went away – in the Second. But as Hollywood slicks up the golems of yesteryear in new layers of spandex, visual artists have a different take on these valiant personages. In 2012, in two remarkable shows, Superman and Batman stormed Gotham’s gallery scene.
Batman arrived at Frederick Petzel Gallery in January on the cape tails of Joyce Pensato. This artist’s trademark idiom, established over a long career, is the full-blown, angst and splatter rendering of cartoon characters, a style that not only simultaneously critiques and renews Abstract Expressionism but also recalls the shared roots of DC Comics and the New York School.
Superman stars in a show from an artist of the same age as Pensato but, thanks to a late start and contrasting outlook, a totally different generation: Katherine Bradford. Where the dark knight gets bombast, the man of steel’s ascent is fuelled by fey sweetness.
Indeed, Bradford delivers an oxymoronically saftig übermensch. But the deflated catsuit and soft limbs are in no way meant to imply an antihero: he is simply a cuddly hero. Nor in his middle age spread should he be misread as a mere mortal in a rented Halloween costume, a figure – in other words – of bathos. His astral travels are for real as he ascends upon a schematic spiral or hovers in the night sky. His depiction is of a piece with an overall paint handling that has the angst-free awkwardness of outsider art. Like the best of naïve painting, only in her case knowingly hard won, Bradford’s images are shot through with effortless abstract harmony and disconcerting observational acumen. The hero’s buttocks and thighs in Superman Responds (2011), for instance, are conveyed by a few loose, carefree-seeming dabs of electric crimson and ultramarine against a generalized creamy ground that nonetheless get across with anatomical precision a convincing if gender-bent voluptuousness.
Everything Bradford paints is shot through with humor: sometimes whimsical, sometimes poignant, sometimes earthy and raucous, other times ethereal, but tellingly, never ironic. Superman as wimp could so easily be a satire of something: masculinity, militarism, even Painting with a capital P. But Bradford invests the two motifs in her show – the other being ocean liners – with such warmth and evident personal significance as to defeat any such end.
These paintings are big and intimate. Big in energy, implied scale, the busy way worked surfaces and agitated depths connote imagery found in decisions and revisions. Intimate in the localness of color contrasts, the rapport with surface, the unfussy finesse of loved details—albeit ones modestly veiled with the appearance of chance discoveries and happy accidents. This collision of gestures that are at once bold and poignant is what gives Bradford’s work its essential character, its tension.
She is one of those very contemporary artists intent on having her cake and eating it. There is the peculiar poetic charm of provisional painting – a sense of blah, of nonchalance, of not quite caring about the slapdash, scruffy, Brooklyn-esque “work in progress” look. But, on the other hand, there is also the energy, seriousness, and resolve of classic abstract painting. The happy marriage of naïveté and abstraction can feel at times as if a Chagall, Janice Biala or Aristodimos Kaldis has been pressed through a de Kooning sieve. Actually, forget that messy analogy: just recall that Wassily Kandinsky made naïve woodcuts before he invented abstraction. Or else bring to mind the reverse, high-abstraction-to-low-realism trajectory of Philip Guston.
Guston is indeed the logical port of call for anyone making sense of Bradford’s journey to action heroes and cruise ships. A very late starter, she had begun in abstraction when, in the course of her development, she felt a painterly, rather than existential, need for subject matter. But ocean liners and Superman, at least as she treats them, are, on two counts, the opposite of Guston’s Klansmen, cigarette stubs, or old boots: her romantic, heartfelt subjects are neither quotidian nor dark. Similarly, The Moon and Sixpence meets A Doll’s House scenario suggested by her delayed career launch is belied by her anything-but-outsider status as an artist. Bradford is little short of a cultural heroine to a younger generation of Brooklyn painters making up the phenomenal attendance of her lecture at the New York Studio School earlier this season and the opening of the exhibition under review.
As I say, Bradford’s Superman and her ships are non-ironic and non-satirical, but clearly, the limp action hero and the capsized liner somehow battling on are powerful, fecund symbols of vulnerable strength and strength in vulnerability. Found in the process of abstract painting, could they in fact be symbols of that very art historical legacy she treasures but also deconstructs: ciphers for painterly explorations that are personal and collective, provisional and heroic, their grandeur grander for being – literally, in her scumble and pentimenti – faded?
This would bridge the gap between the bulky ships at sea and the hero zipping through the sky. It would draw stray images in this compelling show into a gently suggestive lost-and-found narrative of danger and adventure: a Madame-X-like Lady Liberty (2011); a collage featuring the doomed aviatrix Amelia Earhart (2011-12); the silhouette of a ship against a pink sea and orange sky in S.O.S (2012).
Maybe it could even make sense of the cryptic (though neither Kryptonian nor marine) New Men (2011), a mirrored, quasi-palindrome arrangement of the words of its title. In her lecture, in reference to this work, Bradford alluded to an appreciation of the strong sensitive men she was starting to notice around her – bearded Brooklyn Rail-reading metrosexuals flooded this audience member’s mind - perhaps, indeed, the very courtiers of the new order who throng her events.
All I can say is that Bradford is my personal discovery (so far) for 2012. She makes me optimistic about the future of painting. I left her show a new man.