Out painter Katherine Bradford enjoys a late-career renaissance with new show at The Modern

JAMES RUSSELL | Contributing Writer
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ART-DESIGN-BUGKatherine Bradford may not immediately have thought to describe the figure in the left corner as a misplaced Philadelphia sex worker in her painting Uphill March. But the lesbian artist, whose first solo exhibition in Texas runs through Jan. 14 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, agrees the description pitched to her was apt.

“That’s just the kind of reaction I wanted,” she says. “When I got this far, I thought, ‘I’m not going to describe it anymore because someone like you is going to bring something great to what this is.’ A misplaced Philadelphia sex worker is just the touch I needed.”

Uphill March is just one of 13 paintings — all recent works, most from 2017 — filling three galleries on the first floor of the museum. In fact, she encourages viewers to describe the characters or scenes in her paintings. But her loose interpretation does not mean her art lacks a distinctive quality.

Bradford, who is in her 70s and enjoying a career renaissance, paints motifs featuring swimmers, bathers and natural scenes with thick brush strokes. She was influenced by Marsden Hartley, the early 20th century American painter known for his colorful, abstract paintings of coastal Maine. (He was also widely rumored to have been gay.)

waterfall“I love repetition,” Bradford says. “I think the visual appeal of this to me was repeating the marks. They all belong together; you know that from your eyes. These people belong together, but I gave them a little individuality, their heads, what they’re wearing.”

The sense of togetherness and a shared experience are central to her work. In Pool, Red Rim, the featureless characters are in a swimming pool in outer space. In the case of Waterfall, an 80×136-in. acrylic on canvas, two figures in suits are floating to the end of the waterfall. But their facial expressions do not make it clear if they are fearful, unaware or content with the fact they are likely about to plunge presumably to their deaths.

Some pieces start from a simple idea or scene. Others continue past motifs, like swimmers who illustrate a larger theme blending fantasy and nature. The characters, however, are typically gender-neutral.

“I think a lot of painters wouldn’t be interested in doing that. They want to be male or female. But I like to make them look similar,” she says. “I want these to be everyman, universal more or less.”

But as some critics have pointed out, Bradford’s featureless characters still are Caucasian. She does not deny that, or shy away from acknowledging it as something of a blindspot in her work.

Pool-Red-Rim“I’m struggling a bit with the fact that most of the characters in my paintings are Caucasian,” she admits. “I would like to work my way out of that normative approach. I want to be able to do paintings that are inclusive.” She cites one attempt to diversify, the painting Human Pool featuring multiple characters in a swimming pool with their backs to the viewer. “I wanted it to be different people all swimming in the same water as a metaphor for humanity. I don’t know if they are diverse enough, but my world is not that diverse as far as skin color goes.”

Diversity is a trait she came to recognize in part by her late-in-life coming out.

“I’m a gay woman. That gives me agency. And in 2017 you can’t help but be aware things are changing; we’re not all going to be female or male,” she says. “It is fluid. If I could reflect that in my paintings, then all the better. It’s not going to be the subject of my paintings.”

Exhibitions like this one are not just a sign of her success but a chance for her to reflect on her work as well, and allow Bradford to communicate about her work and revisit it.

“It gives me the opportunity to dwell on how and what they communicate,” she says. “The only thing I can come up with is I’m giving you a lot of choices.”

She’s even willing to indulge in a bit of clever speculation. In the case of Ritual, a group of people is huddled together with their arms in the air as if they are celebrating. A white, air-like cylindrical tornado forms above, connecting them to a moon or planet. Next to them is a bed.

“The bed is for the Philadelphia sex worker,” Bradford deadpans.                   

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth. Exhibition through Jan. 14. TheModern.org.