On my 35th day of self-isolation, I cautiously made my way downtown to Adams and Ollman to view Katherine Bradford’s new exhibition of paintings, ‘Mother Joins the Circus’. On a vacant Portland sidewalk, along an empty street, I knocked on the gallery door. As she let me in, gallerist Amy Adams and I performed the formal dance of social distancing, tracing an invisible two-metre forcefield between us. The strangeness of our manoeuvres was amplified by the encounters depicted in the 13 paintings on the walls around me: people waiting in line, swimmers at a public pool, seaside groupings of friends – trivial meetings now forbidden by our unprecedented circumstances.
Bradford’s recent paintings, all completed in 2019 in acrylic on canvas, are worked in signature crayon-box colours that play brightly against each other: radiant deep purple, luminous turquoise, fiery orange, egg-yolk yellow and grass green. Most depict groupings of flatly rendered people either floating in space or navigating minimal landscapes, the latter implied by little more than horizon lines. Loose-handed strokes and rough surfaces – revealing dried flakes of acrylic and brush hairs – suggest rapid execution and give the scenes a folksy immediacy. The titles are unaffectedly descriptive: the works Circus Ring and Indoor Pool depict exactly those subjects.
Bradford’s bright colours belie the moody themes repeatedly suggested throughout the exhibition. Many figures face away from the viewer and most are portrayed against dark backgrounds, evoking night-time or introspective reveries. Full Moon Swimmers depicts naked lovers entwined peacefully, floating under a green moon. In Beach Fire, five figures, four men and one woman, rendered in red, pink, purple, blue and orange, stand apart from one another. The men are stiffly upright, but the woman leans in apprehensively; a column of heat rising from the large fire in the foreground acts as a barrier between her and the others. These works evince the emotional magnetism of a dream.
As the show’s title suggests, circus themes feature heavily. A form of mass entertainment that increasingly belongs to a bygone era, the circus as a visual motif implies nostalgia; here, however, any sentimentality is undercut by a sense of impending misadventure and sublimated intensity. The tutu-clad Circus Lady, her body tilted to the right while her head turns left, is no graceful ballerina but a costumed performer, seemingly startled by something just out of view. Mother Joins the Circus depicts a traditional magic trick, with a woman suspended horizontally between a doubled circlet of arms created by two standing figures. Yet, the tense flatness of the subjects lends the work a melancholic air, as though this embrace portends the woman’s disappearance.
The more time I spent with them, the more I became convinced that Bradford’s paintings are essentially aides-mémoire. Turquoise Ensemble presents a seemingly random selection of figures submerged in water. With its untidy marks and minimal detail, the image appears to function as a psychological placeholder, a container for a remembered feeling or mood. Bradford’s execution is unstudied because it’s not literal depiction she’s after. The artist relinquishes such orthodox concerns as distinct details, exacting technique or even a clean canvas in order to arrive more directly at the peculiar emotional charge of her images. They speak of a world I once took for granted.
Main Image: Katherine Bradford, Full Moon Swimmers, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 183 × 152 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Adams and Ollman, Portland