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Unapologetically, Art : Katherine Bradford

Written for a personal artist review.

Art has been both my greatest pleasure as well as my biggest vulnerability. What is “good art”? As a child raised by relentless entrepreneurs, I never knew the answer to this question. My Chinese-Russian parents raised me with a futurist inspired perspective when it came to the visual world. In other words, my mother glorified the images of war, and technology without ever dipping beyond the painted surface of red. The abstract was unknown to her as she was never taught to form an opinion or to even truly be herself within art or life. I, on the other hand, was raised American but yet prone to create the same psychological barrier that blocked the outside world from my own true emotions and vice versa. I never analyzed art, connected art with deeper notions outside of the gallery, or ever sought to truly think what the artist was trying to convey. But how could I? I did not let the world see my true self, and subsequently, the world never sank in either. However, 2 months ago, I was introduced to the New York abstract painter Katherine Bradford. I would not obtusely say that Bradford had a profound impact on my life, but I will be fervent in the fact that the 76-year-old artist left me in silent tears after a studio class visit.

I was initially completely disinterested when I walked into her studio. Her paintings were large, eccentric compositions of vibrant, neon colors that danced loosely over the canvas. The palette ranged from dark ivory blacks and cobalt violets to phthalo greens and cadmium yellows. There was no single subtle color on her canvas, every usage of gradient was there to both provoke and present a statement. But yet, I was disinterested. The colors were agreeably difficult to ignore but I was deeply puzzled by the subjects or more specifically, the quality of the subjects’ renderings. The “humans” were flattened, 2-D renderings of loosely outlined bodies. The legs were compressed to the canvas with limited curvatures in the knees that could have otherwise presented a more realistic representation. The toes were also loosely painted in, and looked more like that of a child’s illustration than a professional adult painter’s. Having seen Michelangelo's stunningly detailed sketches of the human form, I was incredibly perplexed by Bradford’s paintings. Nothing in her paintings seemed to be a realistic mirror of anything in life, instead, everything was a halfway rendering of a subject that came from the real world but then diffused into imagination. The people looked like people, but their flesh was painted in hues of purple and green. The houses had a formal architectural base of a roof and walls, but yet lacked doors and was omnisciently floating in water. There was the initial disconnect within the figures themselves, they seemed stuck halfway between the imaginative world and the real world. In other words, they were not purely painted in a fantastical form with outrageously shaped bodies yet they were also not still lifes painted to anatomical proportions. Was Bradford having difficulty portraying real life or transporting us to an imaginative planet?

However, upon further inspection, and as aforementioned the colors were there to present a statement. The fluorescent pinks and illuminating yellows were unapologetic in their composition, viscerally screaming and engaging the viewer with their gradient. The colors were not assembled in matte, flesh tones, so neither was the subjects. It was not a lack of artistic skill where the artist hoped to portray a still life but failed in technique, instead, the subjects were unapologetic in their composition too. Yes, it was not precisely human or absolutely abnormal, but there was a depth of perfection. The paintings perfectly captured the artist’s own unique essence. Bradford had an eccentric personality that was both unapologetically true to herself as well as what she wanted to present to the world. It was not hinged to academic standards or critiques, rather, it was a by-product of what she felt in that specific moment of painting.

I was wrong to have compared Bradford to Michelangelo, Bradford was not trying to be Michaelangelo - she just wanted to be herself. In “Between Artists”, the painter Amy Sillman speaks about the ability to represent one’s consciousness through one’s work. She hopes for her audience to see a “perverse evidence of interiority” within her work that presents the “struggles between forces” that were at play both within the paint as well as the artist’s mind. For Sillman, art was a segway out of the ordinary that transformed into a medium for her to be truly powerful in her own being. Bradford eminently did just so - her work did not protrude age and fatigue, yet it reflected a vibrance of Bradford’s inner self through the combined usage of gradients, paint, brushes, strokes and canvas. Sillman further speaks about the “objectless yearning” in painting where there can be a “sort of space where there’s no answer [or] question” but yet answers to one’s own sense of abstraction.

I came into art from a heartbroken place in both my personal and professional life. I realized that au-courant technology was unable to truly connect with the human individual when relying on computational design alone. I also witnessed my own difficulty to render meaningful connections when I forged a barrier between what I truly was and portrayed - in both art, and life. There are several filters when it comes to art. The artist first filters the original inspiration through his or her mind, then reflects that thought into another filter - whether it is a canvas or video. And lastly, the viewers view the art through his or her own filter of biases, perspectives, and outlooks. It’s incredibly mind-numbing to me on how many filters the original essence of an artwork goes through before it reaches my audience. But to answer my original question of “what is good art”? I would say, good art is one that is unapologetically real in its essence through its ability to make us feel despite the filters within all of us.