With their rich, intuitive colour palettes and intriguing figurative compositions, the paintings of Katherine Bradford (b. 1942, New York) skilfully merge the traditions of abstract expressionism and colour field painting with contemporary explorations of identity. Groups of swimmers and superheroes are recurring motifs in these scenes, often depicted with blank faces and set ambiguously into luminous planes of colour. With few indications of pictorial depth, distinctions between solid ground, water and air are blurred, so that any sense of weight, space or gravity is elusive.

For Bradford’s work, the portrait of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas – the center piece in this exhibition – is a rare break into specificity. Unlike the dream-like landscapes and anonymous figures that make up much of her oeuvre, the portrait of a famous avant-garde couple situates us within a specific narrative context and offers a telling glimpse into Bradford’s own sphere of reference and influence. The writing of Gertrude Stein is widely celebrated for its radical manipulations of language. In her 1914 prose poem “Tender Buttons,” descriptions of familiar objects such as a feather, a hat or a chair become jumbled and uncanny. Take this line for example: “A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot. – Red Roses.” The text is swimming with familiar associations and evocative images, yet the reader finds little solid ground to orient themselves. Words are used like materials for collage and assemblage, their meanings loose and adrift.  

In Bradford’s visual language, we can see a similar mode of loosening and disorienting at work. Familiar gestures and figurative arrangements offer clues about relationships, narratives and moods, but any certainty is gracefully suspended. We encounter couples embracing or kissing as often as we see figures spaced apart, each in their own silent world. In “Swimmers and a hill house”, a group of swimmers stand knee-deep in and beside the water, something haunting about their straight, still bodies, and faces gazing out at us from the canvas, yet entirely absent of features. Meanwhile “Birth of Superman” captures two figures in a moment of wide-eyed, tangled collapse. 

Identity and anonymity seem to be central themes throughout Bradford’s work. The gender of her figures is often ambiguous or undefined, and as such, her reference to famous literary lesbians Stein and Toklas feels relevant here. Perhaps stereotypical family life, with its structures, expectations, comforts and constraints, is being put into question? Any such questioning remains subtle however, as Bradford’s work doesn’t feel like a critique so much as a relaxed gaze, observing with open curiosity and a sense of humour. When a painting’s title indicates a female character, such as “Runaway Wife,” the female figure most often wears a simple dress like the typical, triangular form we mostly see on women’s toilet doors. Is there a hint of parody in Bradford’s use of this reductive symbolism? 

Likewise, the repeated appearance of superheroes could remind us of the different identities we each put on and wear like a suit from time to time – when we go to work, when we care for our children, when we meet our neighbours – the roles that society expects us to slip into. Sometimes these ‘suits’ make us feel heroic and brave, and other times, like Superman’s skin-tight spandex, we might feel a little silly and exposed. 

It is through such finely tuned ambivalence that Bradford’s scenes derive their atmospheric, metaphorical power. In this delicate balance, simple gestures and spare landscapes are capable of encompassing the complex weave of intimacy, isolation, tension and empathy that constitute a life lived among others.