Exuberant Paintings of Ocean Liners Offer Humor and Hope

Given the Mediterranean migrant crisis dominating newspaper headlines around the world, it’s a salient moment for “Life Boats,” a new exhibition by Katherine Bradford, a veteran New York artist known for her vibrant, playful, and genre-bending approach to traditional marine painting.

The show at FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery, which runs concurrently with a show by fellow New York artist Becky Yazdan, features Bradford’s vivid oil portrayals of various types of boats, from ocean liners to signal ships. Some are clearly lifeboats, others not; some, like Superman Night Rescue (2015)—depicting a superhero flying high over dark water to save a man—aren’t straightforward depictions of lifeboats. But they’re symbolic of rescue, and they reveal Bradford’s sense of humor. She’s not an artist who takes herself too seriously: she doesn’t follow the rules of any one genre or style, and volunteers that her “favorite ship to paint is an ocean liner”—seemingly for the joy of it. “It lets me use the geometries of stripes, stacks and dots (port holes).”

Nor are Bradford’s themes overly complex or abstract: these “Life Boats” are about adventure at sea, survival, and saviors. But there’s a reason why her work has landed in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum. They’re full of “a giddy sense of possibility,” says Ken Johnson of The New York Times. The critic wrote of Bradford’s paintings in 2012: “If Superman represents the visionary individual, Ms. Bradford’s ships suggest utopian collectivity. Paintings of ocean liners looming monumentally prow-first toward the viewer and draped by festive lights promise imminent voyages of kindred spirits to heretofore unknown shores.”

Of Bradford’s style and message, William Eckhardt Kohler reviews, “Bradford’s willingness to move freely between painting genres and schools leads to a sense that she is essentially being profoundly herself and that she has forged these parts into her own visual language…it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to imagine the ship as a stand in for the artist’s own journey…and also of the human capacity to push forward finding humor in life.” 

Which isn’t to say that all of Bradford’s latest lifeboats are whimsical renderings with superhero stars: some of the works, like Dark Ship, Calm Waters (2015), have a distinctly foreboding feeling. Indeed, the open ocean at night is the artist’s favorite setting to portray. “There is nothing more satisfying to paint,” she writes, “than the heightened moment when all our senses are acutely alive.”



—Bridget Gleeson


Life Boats” is on view at FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery, New Haven, May 1 – Jun. 13, 2015.

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