Artist Katherine Bradford likes acrylic paint. As a material, acrylic is filled with wonder for its contradictions. Its water-soluble chemistry allows for the kind of dreamy washes that color fields and abstractions often rely on, while its water-resistant setting state is anchored and dependable. Bradford’s solo exhibition Divers and Dreamers, currently on view at Adams and Ollman, is up to the comparison of being dually quixotic and grounded. Bradford revels in the illustration of heroes, lovers, introverts, and the otherworldly. The following interview asks the artist to consider the figures she paints as harbingers of visual poetry and a return to the idealism behind painting past.
Ashley Stull Meyers: The juxtapositions you create in your paintings are often lyrical, poetic ones. With what metaphorical value do you view water in relationship with the acts of “diving” and “dreaming”?
Katherine Bradford: “Diving” introduces the idea that the viewer will see in this group of paintings a lot of people in bathing suits ready to immerse themselves in water. “Dreaming” is a word that pairs nicely in sound with “diving” and introduces the notion that the tone and setting for the swimmers may be invented and fantastical.
Water and paint are wonderfully liquid and ripe for experiment. Both can be transparent and hold onto glints of another color. For the past year I’ve used only acrylic paint because I love the florescent colors and the watery texture. Every time my brush hits the surface of the canvas I seem to get a different stroke, and many of them recall waves or rivulets or splashes of water, but the real value is that water serves as a metaphor for whatever we’re floating on, and jumping into, and traveling through.
ASM: We’ve seen a variance of treatments of water and air in your work, but several of these new paintings are situated in outer space—or at least worlds that are less tangible and familiar. What’s behind this choice of environment?
KB: I want to examine large themes that exist in any time or place—themes like isolation, community, play, or wonder. My paintings are full of awe for our place as small beings in an immense scheme of things. Is that a romantic notion?
I feel my settings are universal and timeless and exist in the past as well as the future. The deeper, darker palette came first [in making Divers and Dreamers] and suggested outer space at night. Outer space is a joy for any painter of large color fields. You’ve probably already guessed that my favorite colors are dark blues and purples. It’s full of the mystery of a dark, unchartered universe and gives me boundless opportunities for the invention of multiple light sources.
ASM: To what degree to you feel inspired by your predecessors in Color Field?
KB: Mark Rothko isn’t necessarily considered a Color Field painter, but I love his very nuanced fields of color. Other strong influences are Milton Avery, who invented wonderfully original ways to paint the sea with waves, and Marsden Hartley, who paints human beings who look vulnerable and a bit odd.
ASM: Let’s talk about heroes. You’re painting Superman, but also altruistic figures like nurses. What’s attractive to you about representing this thread of humanity? Does every hero need acolytes?
KB: I’m so glad you see the nurses as an extension of my interest in heroes. It’s the first time I’ve used them in a painting, and it came from seeing bits of red poking through the paint. I imagined little red crosses and capes, and as I was giving each one more form, they started to resemble nurses more than superheroes. Either of those groups would have been fine for the painting. More than anything, I need upbeat, colorful characters to populate my invented landscapes.
Many of my Superman paintings show him soaring into the air in response to a call to rescue. He’s alone and he’s flying. He’s separated from any trace of the Earth, so the painting showing him standing above his so-called acolytes is an exception. I did that for visual reasons. The bottom of the painting really needed some points of light.
ASM: There are a number of introspective, solitary figures in Divers and Dreamers, too. Paintings like Shell Seeker (2016) really punctuate the ones of couples, like Couple on the Moon (2016). Is there a difference in the way you paint these two moments? How do you communicate loneliness? And is it hopeful?
KB: The word I would use is “solitary,” not necessarily “lonely.” And if all these figures are acting out a journey that is parallel to the one an artist is on, then I’d say that they are calm, focused, and definitely full of hope.
Divers and Dreamers is on view at Adams and Ollman in Portland, Oregon, through June 3, 2016.