Sara Krajewski and Katherine Bradford in conversation upon the occasion of the artist’s exhibition, Mother Joins the Circus

Katherine Bradford, Mother Joins the Circus (2019), acrylic on canvas. 

Sara: I thought we could start by discussing the work that gave the exhibition its title: Mother Joins the Circus (2019). I was really struck by the fact that it's a smaller scale painting, but the sentiment of it is rather large. I wondered: what's happening in this painting and what inspired you to think about the circus?

Katherine: I think circus people are one step away from swimmers, which are characters I’ve used often in the past. I think of swimmers as sparsely-dressed acrobats. I tend to paint figures economically, often they don’t have faces and most of the time I don't put a lot of clothing on them. I did a painting where I made the people look like they had colored suits on as an experiment with the different ways I could not make them all flesh colored. Somebody referred to it as circus people, and I thought, oh yes, it does look like circus people. I liked that idea.

I also liked the notion of circus people being a community of individuals who are somewhat outside-the-mainstream and get paid for being unusual. I see a parallel between that community and the art world.  I wanted to call the show Circus People but Amy Adams, of Adams and Ollman, was hesitant because she thought it might be confused with freaks, freaky people, and she didn’t want that connotation coming in. Amy wanted to call the show Figures, which I didn't like at all because I like my figures to be specific characters instead of generalized figures. By that I mean, I don’t want them to be the kind of figure that might come from life drawing or nudes. I think this gave it a specificity. In talking to you I figured it out a little more, just now.

Sara: The characters in many of the circus paintings do give the impression of being specific types, like the strong man, the bareback riders, or the circus lady in a skirt. It also struck me that this circus is a gendered space. I know you've sometimes used clothing in other paintings to indicate gender, but I've always seen those works as fluid rather than these more specific types.

Katherine: Are you reading the gender because sometimes they’re wearing ballet skirts like tutus?

Sara: Yes, and I was thinking about the painting of the circus ring: these inflated male figures with their dumbbells and the outward showing of strength that we associate with masculinity.

Katherine: I can see why you would use the word gender. Actually, I'm most interested in representing the figures’gender identities as very fluid. I think the men could wear skirts and the women could have barbells.

Sara: In the painting that gives the show its title, there are two figures standing with one figure lying in their arms, being held up, or maybe held back by the others. Can you explain what’s going on in the scene? It's an ambiguous action to me, I could interpret it as either support or restraint.

Katherine: Maybe they’re about to shove her in a cannon! Or maybe they just caught her, she just flew through the air from a trapeze. Really, I felt I needed a horizontal figure because I had too many upright figures. It was a formal decision. If I’m trying to make an interesting looking painting, that’s the kind of problem I have to solve. I think the idea of two people carrying another person is how I got to that composition. I've done it before in several paintings with upright figures and horizontal figures, without much explanation. Sometimes they're all in the water.

Sara: The figures wearing skirts really did strike me as dancers and acrobats with the fluidity in their motion that I associate with your swimmers. But in this show the swimmers feel more static to me—they’re standing upright or laying on top of each other instead of moving more freely in water. They seem heavier; the figures are really pushed into the foreground and fill that space, instead of being suspended within the color field.

Katherine: I know why you say “suspended in the color field,” because of my painting that's now at the Portland Art Museum, which is definitely a color field with smaller figures in it, and was made in 2017. I think in my most recent paintings I’ve made the figures bigger and they take up a lot of room in the rectangle. But you're asking me why does that happen…[laughs] I’m not sure I know. I think it’s a visual decision, in many ways.

Sara: There's a kind of crowded feeling that I get from those figures when they're standing close together, but very still. It has a kind of stuck-ness.

Katherine: I know what you mean. Sometimes I think about photographs and how often people are lined up, all facing the photographer. We're used to seeing people presented that way: facing out, in a line, the same distance from the camera. I think there are few paintings in the show like that—I see it is a basic way of people presenting themselves.

Katherine Bradford, Swimmers and Hooves (2019), acrylic on canvas.

Sara: There are a couple paintings too, like Swimmers and Hooves (2019) and Yellow Beach Towel (2019), in which the figures almost become small abstract paintings within the larger frame. There are very different ways to read those pieces, and you laughed when I mentioned that piece so I want to hear more about it.

Katherine: [laughs] I heard you say swimmers with hooves, instead of swimmers and hooves, and imagining swimmers with hooves made me laugh. The painting is three swimmers, with three hooved legs descending behind them, which is no less absurd.

I find these ideas in the process of painting and they don't always make sense. It's not always a rational image I'm giving you. If it's too absurd or it doesn't have the right tone or spirit, I'll change it. But if it's just kind of whimsical or a little absurd, I rather enjoy that. That play with reality and expectations is something a painter can do and it evokes a lot of freedom, which I like.

Katherine Bradford, Full Moon Swimmers (2019), acrylic on canvas.

Sara: I like the whimsical nature too, though I find it both whimsical and serious. In Full Moon Swimmers (2019), the two figures look like they’re laid right across a Rothko-style stack of color fields.

Katherine: Yes, exactly.

Sara: That made me smile. But it also made me think: Is this compositional choice is a way of poking fun at the grand nature of abstraction while also asserting the human within it?

Katherine: I've often thought about that. I revere Rothko, as you can imagine, and I’ve often wondered what he might think of me putting figures back into his fields of color after he took out images all together. He cleared everything out to purify his abstractions, to great effect. The works are so successful in their simplicity, and on the one hand they bear the question: why put any kind of reference at all into the beautiful fields of color that he made. On the other hand, I like what you said about poking fun or bringing down to earth the grandeur of abstraction. I'm not an abstract expressionist white male. I come from somewhere else, and I think I wanted more humanity in my paintings—directly, not obliquely the way color field painters and abstract expressionists do.

Katherine Bradford, Team Players (2019), acrylic on canvas. 

Sara: What can you tell me about how you balance building up of color in the ground of the painting and then introducing form by drawing on the surface? I'm thinking specifically about Team Players (2019), and your use of a bold red line for the figures. The background appears monochromatic yet is far from it.

Katherine: You're right, I think that painting is different from the others. Amy found it in my studio and said she loved it, and I said, well, you can take it. I didn't know she was going to put it in the show. In that painting you know there’s a lot of gender fluidity. Can you see that?

Sara: Yes, definitely.

Katherine: I did that painting slightly earlier than most of the other paintings in Mother Joins the Circus. I put down a very light yellow ground and then drew on it in red, as a way to get the figures. I think I was experimenting with another way to put people in the space, very simply.

Sara: When you say you drew onto the ground, do you mean with paint, or…?

Katherine: I used a paintbrush, but the act was more like drawing. I had done some other paintings that were on a light ground with red lines and I liked the way it looked. This is probably part of that series.

Sara: I love the gesture of the team huddle, with their hands together. It comes off as a joyful moment within the show. Not that the other paintings aren’t joyful, but the emotions of the other works feel more ambiguous to me. I can't help but be affected by what we're living through right now with the Co-vid 19 pandemic, quarantines and social distancing, and this sense of being alone together feels very timely. It’s comforting to remember how, until very recently, we used to engage with each other in a much more physical way—touching, being close. We’ll get back to it at some point. You often create scenes in which the figure or figures feel physically close but psychologically isolated, which feels particularly relevant now as we’re all physically isolated.

Katherine Bradford, Ritual, 2017, acrylic on canvas. Collection of Portland Art Museum. Museum Purchase: Funds provided by Victor Platt.

Katherine: I know just what you mean. I like your use of the phrase “alone together.” I think that's echoed a little bit in the painting, Ritual (2017), which isn’t included in this show. I imagine the figures in that painting have their hands up in the air in some kind of collaborative gesture.

Sara: In that painting, I see it as a moment of transmission from the moon or a celestial body to a group of people, and they're all reaching up to touch that magical moment in unison.

Katherine: Right. I just thought of that as you were speaking; both of these scenes are rituals, Team Players, and Ritual. The psychological is a recurring theme that I come back to, and explore what it's like to be alone, what it's like to be together, what it’s like to be alone together.

Sara Krajewski is the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Over her tenure at the Portland Art Museum, Krajewski has reinvigorated the contemporary art program through exhibitions, commissions, collection development, and publications, and she has fostered collaborations that bring together artists, curators, educators, and the public to ask questions around access, equity, and new institutional models. Recent exhibition projects include: Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being EqualWe.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments.; Josh Kline: Freedom; and Placing the Golden Spike: Landscapes of the Anthropocene. Krajewski holds degrees in Art History from the University of Wisconsin (BA) and Williams College (MA) and has been a contemporary art curator for twenty years, holding prior positions at the Harvard Art Museum, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Henry Art Gallery, and INOVA/Institute of Visual Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A specialist in transdisciplinary artistic practices, Krajewski was awarded a curatorial research fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and received arts leadership training through the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) and the Center for Curatorial Leadership (2019).

Katherine Bradford: Mother Joins the Circus is currently on view at Adams and Ollman and online